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Creative Solutions to Closing the Digital Divide

School districts from around the country offer blueprints for how to improve outcome for students—and communities

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It’s no secret that the pandemic exacerbated innumerable deep divides across the United States. One of the most significant for the nation’s students was the gap in broadband and device access, which made it difficult to connect to virtual classes or even do homework. More than two years later, the digital divide has shrunk significantly thanks to government funding, creative efforts by school districts, and partnerships with internet providers. The start of a new school year offers a chance to survey and share a variety of resources institutions can tap—not only to keep up the work of closing the digital divide, but to use technology in new and creative ways to more effectively engage students.

Below are just a few of the community efforts happening across the country, as well as information on the resources that have made them possible.

Woman and her daughter smile as the daughter holds up a laptop computer

Javeria Salman/The Hechinger Report

Maria G. Islas, a staff member at Think College Now, a public elementary school in Oakland, with her daughter, Jesimiel Merida-Islas, who received a laptop and hot spot after months of sharing a computer with her mother.

#OaklandUndivided & Community-Based Partnerships (Oakland, California)
 

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, only 25% of Oakland public school students had stable internet and home device access. Two years later, the city has provided students with more than 36,000 laptops and 11,500 hotspots, and now 98% of the district’s students are able to fully participate in class and complete their homework. The process wasn’t easy. Initially, the district estimated that 25,000 students would need device or connectivity support. But after administering a Tech Check survey, the city found more than 40,000 students lacked sufficient access.

To close the gap, officials turned to people who knew Oakland best: community-based organizations. The district and mayor’s office partnered with groups like Tech Exchange and the Latino Education Network and launched the #OaklandUndivided campaign. Tech Exchange, which had worked to close Oakland’s digital divide for more than 20 years, ordered the devices and provided tech support during the campaign. The Latino Education Network, as well as parent and student liaisons, directly communicated with kids and their families to ensure they knew about #OaklandUndivided and could get access to a computer or hotspot. The campaign initially relied on funding from donors like Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey, but it also utilized $130 million in funding from the Elementary and Secondary School Relief (ESSER) Fund and the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF). It was also the inaugural pilot site for EducationSuperhighway’s program to close the affordability gap, which accounts for a significant part of the digital divide. Now Oakland is using funding from the CARES Act to build out broadband infrastructure, with the goal of closing its digital divide for good.

Four students, three girls and one boy, work on laptops outside

Iowa West Foundation

Iowa students take advantage of the BLink-Bluffs community Wi-Fi network.

Broadband Infrastructure & Anchor Institutions (Council Bluffs, Iowa)
 

While many communities have focused on device and hotspot access, the Open Technology Institute at New America and the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition recently released a series of case studies showcasing how 12 communities used anchor institutions to expand broadband infrastructure “to-and-through” their communities. Anchor institutions are places like schools and libraries that have their own broadband networks that can be expanded to also provide service to students’ households.

One example can be found in Council Bluffs, Iowa. After the city received a donation of 500 Chromebooks from Google, educators realized they couldn’t effectively integrate the technology into students’ learning, since many didn’t have home broadband access. So the city partnered with Council Bluffs schools to build the BLink-Bluffs community Wi-Fi network, which launched in 2014 and currently connects 85%, or 7,500 kids, of the district’s students. The district believes BLink provides them with significant cost savings, estimating it would cost $1,440 per student to provide hot spots over a three-year period. Over the same period, the BLink network costs $300 per student. Council Bluffs also found that, due to its infrastructure investment throughout the 2010s, students were more prepared for remote learning and experienced a smaller homework gap when the pandemic hit than peer communities across Iowa.

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Greater Phoenix Economic Council

The City is the Classroom (Phoenix, Arizona)
 

In December 2021, College Board hosted a webinar with two superintendents leading efforts to close the digital divide. One, Chad Gestson, superintendent of Phoenix Unified School District (PUSD), shared his district’s efforts to close the divide. Like Oakland, Phoenix United distributed devices and hotspots to their students at the onset of the pandemic. It also turned buses into mobile Wi-Fi hubs. But now, with its eyes on the future, Phoenix, like Council Bluffs before it, is building a “canopy” of Wi-Fi networks on publicly-owned property.

Phoenix United is also thinking about how to adjust its teaching methods to reflect new ways of learning. For example, the district wants to ensure students have opportunities to take the highest possible level of math—but not every school has enough students to fill each class. As a result, PUSD launched city-wide, live-taught online courses that allow students to take more advanced coursework. Additionally, it recognized that some students need a more flexible approach to learning. The district launched PXU City, an independent study high school where students can take classes across multiple high school campuses or even in coffee shops. Classes are flexible, so students can work or do internships during the day and take classes that fit around these professional opportunities. It’s all part of Phoenix’s plan, spurred by the pandemic, to not only close the digital divide but apply the thoughtful use of technology to structural advances across its education system.

Three students, two girls and a boy, use laptops and tablets outside their home

NBC News/Twitter

Thanks to an investment in Starlink terminals, students in New Mexico’s Cuba Independent School District are able to reliably use their computers.

Using Satellites to Overcome Distance (Cuba, New Mexico)
 

The other leader College Board spoke with at our webinar was Superintendent Karen Sanchez-Griego of New Mexico’s Cuba Independent School District. Cuba ISD is larger geographically than Rhode Island, and many students have two-hour commutes—both ways—to school. With the onset of the pandemic, the district employed multiple tactics to help its students, like sending them home with USB bracelets with course assignments for the next several weeks and having bus drivers deliver hotspots and other supplies. But due to the district’s size, administrators found that these methods weren’t effective. Worse, the hotspots didn’t give students a reliable connection.

The district began to explore other options. But because it serves multiple Native American reservations, which operate as sovereign territories, the logistics of partnering with external organizations became complicated. Ultimately, Cuba Independent School District used $2 million from its ESSER funds to purchase Starlink kits for every home in the district. (StarlInk is a satellite-based internet system developed by SpaceX.) At the end of 2021, when we spoke to Dr. Sanchez-Griego, the district had just begun to roll out the systems, which provided coverage to 107 homes. These first adopters saw great improvement in bandwidth and the ability to participate in remote class and complete their homework. Now, the district is building these new efforts into its long-term budget. As Dr. Sanchez-Griego pointed out, for students, having reliable internet connection isn’t just important for school, it’s essential in preparing for college and applying for jobs. In other words, to helping students own their futures.

Mom helping elementary age girl with e-learning video conference call

Fly View Productions/Getty Images

Resources to Close the Divide (Nationwide)

Oakland, Council Bluffs, Phoenix, and Cuba have used a variety of resources to close the digital divide. But they can be applied elsewhere, and anywhere. While not comprehensive, the following list highlights these districts’ tools and where to find more information about them.

Affordable Connectivity Program: Originally the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF), the FCC launched the Affordable Connectivity Program, which allows qualifying households to reduce their internet costs by up to $30/month. Students and families can find more information on how to apply on the program’s website, while schools can find support resources to aid in the application process on the Department of Education website.

Internet for All: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides $65 billion in funding for internet access. Every eligible state has signed on and will work with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), FCC, Department of Treasury, and USDA to implement programs in their states. States can apply for funding, and open programs can be found on the program’s website. Constituents can also encourage their state and local leaders to take part and ensure that their communities have internet for all.

EducationSuperHighway: EducationSuperHighway is a national nonprofit working to close the digital divide. Not only are they supporting Oakland’s efforts to make internet more affordable, they also offer a variety of tools and resources that communities can use to close the digital divide. (You find more about the program in this Elective interview with founder and CEO Evan Marwell.)

We’ve made amazing strides to close the digital divide over the past two years. But the work isn’t over. The start of a new school year is the perfect time to reflect on preexisting resources and new opportunities for shrinking the gap and using technology and set students up for success in school—and life.