Bridging the Connectivity Gap


Climbing Mount Everest? You’re now able to connect to wifi. Headed home as one of our nation’s school children? There’s a chance you won’t be able to do so. According the Pew Research Center, 5 million of the 29 million households with school-aged children lack access to high quality broadband while at home. Almost one-third of households whose incomes fall below $50,000 and with children ages 6 to 17 do not have a high-speed internet connection. The data also makes it evident that low-income households – especially our black and Hispanic families – make up a disproportionate percentage of the 5 million families without access. Coined “The Homework Gap”, this means that many of the children sitting in our classrooms lose connectivity the moment they step out of our doors.

The topic of connectivity has been on the forefront for our nation’s schools over the past year. President Obama has often stated that, “In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, we should definitely demand it in our schools.” This past year, the FCC took bold steps to increase connectivity in our schools and attention has now turned to connectivity while at home. In voting to increase funding for the federal E-rate program, an increase of $1.5 billion annually was earmarked to improve internet access in U.S. schools and libraries. The decision expands high-speed Wi-Fi access to approximately 43.5 million additional students, more than 101,000 additional schools, and nearly 16,000 libraries over the next five years. But a gap remains once students leave the school building.

This past July, the White House launched a follow up to its ConnectED Initiative, deemed “ConnectHome”. This initiative works to join communities, the private sector, and the federal government to expand high-speed broadband to more than 275,000 low-income households; in an effort to support nearly 200,000 of our nation’s children. Yet with all this work by the FCC and the White House, many of our children remain disconnected while at home - a sad reality and disadvantage when it’s predicted that 77% of jobs will require digital skills by the end of this decade.

As schools work locally to close this gap, a number of districts are rising to the top when it comes to innovative connectivity practices, four of which are highlighted below. The leadership in these districts have prioritized this issue and are working to grant connectivity to their students round the clock.

Coachella Valley Unified District, California
Darryl Adams, Superintendent of Coachella Valley, a district where 100% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, has helped put the connectivity issue on the map. Many of Adams’s students ride the bus for over an hour each way. Simply putting wifi on buses was not enough for Adams,  as when students got home, they would completely lose connectivity in this desert community. After noticing that students would park around the district office on the weekends to gain connectivity, Adams began to pilot wifi on his buses, but not just for the transportation to/from school. Buses were parked in the poorest neighborhoods overnight so that students could remain connected. When the router batteries began losing their charge after a few hours, solar panels were added to extend connectivity throughout the night. A program highlighted by President Obama, what started as a pilot of two buses, will reach all 90 of the district’s buses by project’s end.

Kent School District, Washington
In Kent School District, equal online access for all students is a priority. As part of their Student Technology, Access, and Resources (STAR) Initiative, wifi enabled kiosks are placed throughout the community in convenient locations such as apartment complexes, community centers, and church lobbies, to support both student and parent access. Students are able to complete classwork and parents are able to stay up-to-date on student progress at these locations. Furthermore, the kiosks broadcast wifi up to 150 feet, where students can access the school network on district issued devices, further decreasing the connectivity gap.

Forsyth County Schools, Georgia
One of the largest school districts in Georgia, Forsyth County serves over 42,000 students through its 35 schools. After forming a BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) task force, one major goal was to achieve technology equity for all students. The first recommendation of the task force was to create a free wifi directory for students. Partnering with the local Chamber of Commerce, the directory provides a list of free wifi hotspots sponsored by organizations and businesses throughout the county. This access isn’t just for students as all residents are encouraged to use these resources as needed. The map continues to grow as local businesses continue to apply. The district’s wifi sticker is prominently displayed by participating businesses throughout the community.

Spartanburg School District Seven, South Carolina, the technology-focused website of Spartanburg Seven, gives community businesses direct access to becoming a D7 Wifi Hotspot Partner, in an effort to help the district close its digital divide. With such a partnership, students are able to use this wifi hotspot map, to seek out locations for free connectivity.

As initiatives like Future Ready help districts transition to a more digital, personalized approach to teaching and learning, district leaders must continue to seek out ways to support all students, especially those most in need. Fortunately the work continues. Lead by the champion of connectivity, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the closing of the homework gap continues to gain momentum as Washington works to remedy this nationwide epidemic - one that has long term economic implications. In the mean time, school leaders like those in Coachella Valley, Kent School District, Forsyth County, and Spartanburg Seven are leading the way and tackling this issue head on.

How will your district ensure that those that remain unconnected receive access and opportunity?

For more ideas like those listed above, visit the Stories of EdTech Innovation tool from the US Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology.Lead Image Credit: