Over the past few years, districts have been working diligently to close the access gap (coined in D.C. as the “Homework Gap”) to support students, particularly those most in need. According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 5 million families do not have connectivity at home. According to the numbers, it’s our black and hispanic students that make up a disproportionate percentage. The statistics regarding the need are clear and I believe that equity in access is one of the main issues facing school leaders today.
Fortunately, connectivity has remained a priority in schools and communities across the country. Districts such as Lindsay Unified in California have worked with their local community and government officials to offer free access for families. In districts like Spartanburg 7, South Carolina school leaders are reaching out to businesses, with an offer to partner to support out-of-school access for students in need. In places like Albemarle County, Virginia, school leaders have been developing a 4G Network to support their entire community, every day of the year, by 2020. Across the country, librarians are supporting those in need by promoting the great work and connectivity often available at local libraries.
With the vast array of opportunities available, districts have been looking for a place to start. As such, here are seven ways to support closing the “access gap” to support our students most in need.
1. Leverage EveryoneOn.org.
EveryoneOn.org is a non-profit that works to support families in obtaining access at home. School districts can leverage this resource by sharing with families the low-cost Internet options that are available in their community. It’s imperative to remember that such information is highly-sensitive and confidential, and thus calling down all students who are on free and reduced lunch would be an awful and immoral decision. Districts must remain sensitive to the needs of the families when sharing out this information and understand the legalities of such lists. School leaders should also leverage touch points with parents such as registration, welcome back packets, parent nights, etc. Check out what’s available in your zip code with only a few clicks!
2. Create Community Wifi Maps.
Community Partnerships is one of the gears of the Future Ready Framework and the 7th Key of Learning Transformed, indicates that “Community collaboration and engagement must be woven into the fabric of a school’s culture.” As districts work to close the gap in home access, many also struggle to support the issue financially. Yet, at the same time, many communities have businesses that are willing to help. Districts such as Spartanburg 7 in South Carolina, under the leadership of Superintendent Russell Booker, have collaborated with the community to create the 7 Ignites Community Wifi Map. Every district has their business information on their tax rolls, and reaching out to support the community’s children, is a viable, affordable option. The only cost for the district is time.
3. Leverage Apps Such As Facebook.
Last year, I wrote the post, “Can Companies Like Facebook Help Close the Access Gap?” after Facebook introduced a new tool inside the app to find wifi nearby. [Facebook App –> Settings –> See More –> Find Wifi]. Although introduced for convenience, this tool can support students without home access. One might wonder why you’d leverage an app if someone doesn’t have access at home, and the notion is two-fold. First, many families that don’t have Internet access at home do have a cell phone. Second, students in need can ask friends or educators for nearby locations and collaboration can support access in the community.
4. Promote the Lifeline Program.
In March 0f 2016, the FCC adopted a comprehensive reform and modernization of the Lifeline program. In this Lifeline Modernization Order, the Commission included broadband as a support service in the Lifeline program for those in need. The program is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), which is responsible for the data collection, maintenance, support calculation, and disbursement for the low-income program. The 2016 modernization updated the 1985 program which has provided a discount on phone service for qualifying low-income Americans. With the 2017 change in Presidential leadership, and thus change in FCC leadership, some issues and confusion ensued when Lifeline as a Federal program was halted and deemed a state responsibility. Thus, this option has been left up to state level laws and leadership to support those living in poverty.
5. Collaborate and Promote Your Local Library!
Local libraries are not simply amazing places to support literacy in your community, but are tremendous places for access and connectivity as well. Collaborating with your school librarians and local library, and in turn partnering to promote the needed access is a no-brainer of a support for students and families in need. (Note: Check out Future Ready Librarians for librarians that think like this!)
6. Partner with Companies Such as Kajeet for Mobile Broadband.
Some districts have partnered with companies such as Kajeet to gain access to Smartspots, a filtered mobile wifi solution. One example of a great district leveraging such a partnership is the Parkland School District in Pennsylvania, as part of their Parkland Ready 21 Initiative. Parkland purchased a select number of Smartspots and works closely with their school librarians as these devices can be signed out by students when needed. Such devices offer an instant solution to closing the gap, yet can be difficult to scale in size, as there is an ongoing cost per unit.
7. Discuss and Problem Solve with Teachers!
It’s imperative that teachers understand and keep the access/homework gap on their radar. With approximately 70% of teachers requiring something digital outside of the school day, on a daily basis, students are being asked to do something that they cannot do, putting some of our neediest students in an awful position. As 1:1 initiatives increase, and more devices go home, teachers need to address the issue with students and devise backup plans to support those without home access. At a minimum, teachers should discuss with students that if there is no connectivity at home, to come talk to them after class so a back plan can be made. Teachers putting students in a bad position by requiring something they cannot do is something that can be avoided. As with anything in education, relationships in these conversations are key!
Although programs such as eRate have helped to drastically increase in-school connectivity over the past decade, at-home access remains an issue. It’s precisely why Eric Sheninger and I addressed this equity issue in Chapter 6 of our best selling ASCD book, Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today (#LT8Keys).
To remain competitive in the current 4th Industrial Revolution, it is imperative that schools work to level the playing field for ALL students, and not inadvertently increase the access gap, for our students most in need.
All for the kids we serve,