Bridging digital divides between schools and communities


By: Nicole Turner Lee

Date: March 2, 2020

In a lofty illustration, the two case studies suggest that the inside of the schools appear to have a few gallons of water, while the community—though rich in family and institutional connections—is dehydrated or thirsty. As a result, some residents are compelled to relocate despite the positive effect the school’s technology program is having on their children. Or, residents may be digitally stuck because the robust and contained use of technology within the school does align with absent local opportunities. Overall, these communities are experiencing their own local divides, where the resources within schools are not often imparted into the surrounding communities, and vice versa.

Generally, what I discovered during both site visits is that Pendergast and Francis Marion have shared goals when it comes to the effective integration and adoption of technology by students, faculty, and some parents. Yet, they are sucked into educational models that restrict technology use to the facility, and as a result, are forced to measure student growth through traditional metrics.

Principal Woolsey described this challenge as feeding into the acts of survival that his families undertake from being fully disconnected. In Marion, students are similarly trapped within stalled local economies that fall behind the opportunities emboldened in the new information economy. In both case studies, school-based technology programs alone face obstacles to changing the economic and social trajectories of students. First, the current methodology for deploying digital access is school-centered. Second, the surrounding communities are digitally barren and unable to reinforce these digital experiences, or at best, keep these students connected.

Thus, creating a local digital infrastructure starts with mapping the available assets within a community, from libraries, community-based organizations, and local champions like Betty Cadore from The Social. In their research, Rideout and Katz (2016) pointed to the benefits in creating such local supports, primarily because they advance intergenerational cooperation and adoption of new technologies. Thus, there is a logical need for more engagement by local institutions, including libraries, community centers, and other gathering places, for families without home access to get online.[30] Francis Marion is an exception when it comes to home-use of school devices. But not all schools can provide an in-home resource or have technology available at all, leading to increased inequalities that will only widen as the information economy becomes more widespread.

“Local libraries are not only the most visited when it comes to public computing, but they are the most utilized asset by individuals without home internet access.”

Local libraries are not only the most visited when it comes to public computing, but they are the most utilized asset by individuals without home internet access.[31] In most rural communities, the library is normally the anchor of local activities, such as government services, benefits enrollment, and tax preparation services. Yet, some local libraries are still far from where some local people live, work, or go to school, thereby compromising their ability to do more. Librarians and other staff are also tasked with a variety of functions from checking out materials to helping individuals apply for jobs and access government services. Challenged by limited funding, staff, professional development opportunities, equipment, and software, local libraries can themselves become barriers to adoption.

Community-based organizations, including CTCs, and local businesses are also other local resources that permit free Wi-Fi use, like The Social and, in some cities, the local McDonald’s. However, these institutions also have limited times for availability, may require additional collateral (e.g., a library card or enrollment), or are restricted by limited bandwidth to available unlicensed Wi-Fi.

In the end, schools need connections to reliable, convenient, and safe local digital infrastructure, inclusive of libraries, community-based organizations, and even households to bolster their activities. This can address the growing divides that are quickly widening within low-income and rural communities.

The final part of the paper offers recommendations that make home and community internet access more readily available and supports intergenerational efforts to establish local digital norms around technology among certain groups. The next section also surfaces legislative proposals to advance community-based technology access that overcome the barriers associated with the homework gap.


1. Make community internet access available 24/7 to low-income students and their communities.

Several U.S. cities have deployed lending programs for Wi-Fi hotspots, in addition to providing computer centers. The New York Public Library launched in 2014 a lending program in response to a survey revealing that 55% of library patrons did not have internet access at home. For families making under $25,000, the percentage increased to 65%. Initially seeded through a $500,000 Knight News Challenge Grant, the pilot focused on public school students who lacked home broadband access and through additional donations targeted 10,000 households with internet access.

The Chicago Public Library has also deployed a similar initiative in three libraries that allow residents to check out a Wi-Fi hotspot like they would a book. By mid-2016, the library had 973 wireless internet hotspots for checkout through their Internet to Go program.

In addition, creative solutions to bring internet access to where students are is demonstrated in the wiring of local school buses. In 2013, the rural Coachella Valley Unified School District (Coachella Unified) in California was the first to provide iPads to every K-12 student as part of their mobile learning initiative. Because 95% of students live below poverty, they are challenged in their transportation to local institutions or do not have the economic means to subscribe to a monthly broadband service. In 2016, the school district equipped its school buses with solar-powered Wi-Fi routers to provide internet access while in transit. When stationary, the buses were parked within underserved neighborhoods to offer 24/7 Wi-Fi coverage.

Coachella Unified’s Wi-Fi on Wheels project has enabled broadband internet where students live to minimize the obstacles that disrupt use between the school and community. The program has resulted in a jump in district graduation rates from 70% to 80%, according to one study.[32]

In 2017, Google piloted a similar initiative, Rolling Study Halls, in the Berkeley County School District that enables broadband on 28 school buses. The program has since been expanded to 16 additional school districts and provides Wi-Fi routers, data plans, and devices for students to use while in transit.

Policymakers are finally understanding the need to empower local resources. In May 2018, Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) introduced a bipartisan bill to equip school buses with internet access. The bill extends the FCC’s E-rate program—which provides schools and libraries with affordable broadband services—to reimburse school districts for the cost of outfitting their buses with internet access. In a press release on the bill, Udall stated, “It’s time to end the homework gap. Our legislation will help give all students the ability to get online to study and do homework assignments while they’re on the bus—a common sense, 21st-century solution.”

In 2019, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) introduced a similar bill to reduce the homework gap. Meng’s bill, the Closing the Homework Gap through Mobile Hot Spots Act, would develop a $100 million grant program for libraries, schools, U.S. territories, and federally recognized American Indian tribes for the purchase of mobile hotspots. According to Meng’s press release, the mobile hotspots program would be established for students in need of internet access for homework completion. In her statement, she reinforces the need for such action:

Every child deserves their best chance at pursuing an education. But it breaks my heart knowing that millions of kids, every night, are unable to finish their homework simply because they are without internet access. Before the internet became ubiquitous, students completed their homework with pen and paper-today, that is no longer the case.

Taken together, these two bills can help scale and sustain many of the pilot programs being instituted within local communities while closing the homework gap. Although most of these programs rely upon philanthropic and private sector support, the adoption of federal legislation would bring more certainty in terms of appropriations and deployment, making these programs less vulnerable to political changes like the ConnectED program.

2. Create more intergenerational projects between schools and local communities to foster broadband adoption and use.

Between 2008 and 2011, the Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina issued 4,400 Apple MacBooks to students in grades 4–12. Subsequent gains were seen in graduation rates from 80% to 91%, and students exhibited greater proficiency in reading, math, and science—73% to 88% overall. But their story, as some suggested, had less to do with the availability of hardware and more to do with the leadership and their plan for technology deployment. According to its website, the district continues to distribute laptops to its students. It has been the online content, teacher development, parent engagement, and student outcomes that make their technology program effective.

The same type of methodical deployment was adopted by both principals in my case studies. With the help of the Apple and ConnectED initiative, these leaders also revamped existing processes and staff roles to ensure a seamless integration of the technology into the classroom.

What’s even more comparable to the Mooresville lessons is the time spent by both schools on creating the trust of technology among students, teachers, parents, and other community members. In communities of color, intergenerational connections are fundamental to this process, especially as the parents and caregivers of students experience a host of other social problems. For example, when Dr. Trimble decided to allow her students to bring home their iPads, she was appealing to the intergenerational relationships within her community while enabling additional online activities for family members, such job searching, distance learning, among other functions.

Research has long supported the role of students in influencing parents to engage new technologies.[33] When young people become “brokers” to new technologies for their parents and other caregivers, there is a higher likelihood of broadband adoption within the home and a greater exploration of the functionality of the internet (e.g., for health care, employment, and other critical decisions). Children are often seen as the most trustworthy source for families when it comes to internet use. In her research, Corea (2012) found that despite one’s demographic status (as defined by socio-economic status, income, family structure, among other variables), young people are the key agent for introducing and integrating technology into the home.[34] Thus, the imperative to create more robust, local programs that enhance intergenerational engagement could be one of the bridges between schools and local communities. The fifth-grade research project at Pendergast was an attempt to pull the community into the school, which is an incremental step in creating a more digitally enabled community.

“When young people become “brokers” to new technologies for their parents and other caregivers, there is a higher likelihood of broadband adoption within the home and a greater exploration of the functionality of the internet.”

Other nationally known programs are attempting to build such bridges. For the last nine years, Comcast’s Internet Essentials program has been offering low-cost broadband to low-income families, using young people as digital connectors or local ambassadors for training and service within their respective communities. In some affiliate programs, students receive community-service credit or a small stipend for their efforts.

Establishing both trust and purpose for the technology is important for schools, community-based organizations, and other local institutions introducing digital resources.

3. Consider technology as a catalyst for increased student engagement in schools and communities.

Despite the availability of digital resources, schools like Francis Marion and Pendergast are assessed by stringent metrics, including student grades, test scores, and college enrollment. Low-income schools start with a deficit and consequently must catch up with more affluent institutions. While the an in-school technology program and available local resources should be ingredients for more effective learning, such goals are often unrealistic given the basis of cognitive retention around test scores and the institutional funding and staffing constraints for certain communities.

While the Apple and ConnectED initiative offered a framework for how designing and implementing a robust technology initiative, both principals faltered at changing overall student achievement. Going forward, more research is needed to understand how technology can be used to foster improved test scores, or if the reliance on test scores are representative of student performance at all.

What is apparent in both case studies is that both principals awakened some of the dormant realities of their students, who were simultaneously navigating through distressed economic and social circumstances. On this point, a Francis Marion high school student shared, “I really didn’t know what I could do for myself until we received an iPad.”

While test scores may not be affected, student engagement within schools can improve. In the 1960s, this type of educational quagmire was understood in the failures of Brown v. Board of Education to create parity within public schools. Facilities were still separate and unequal, despite the legal mandate of desegregation. As a result, low-income and rural poor schools faced the academic repercussions of these inequalities as demonstrated in poor student achievement and growth.

In many ways, schools like Francis Marion and Pendergast are still experiencing the historical effects of being on the wrong side of segregation. Yet, technology access has the potential to enliven the energy of dissatisfied and disassociated teachers, as well as students whose socio-economic status often dictates predictable (or discouraging) life outcomes.

Moving toward an ethos that assesses how technology affects student, parent, and teacher engagement should count for something. The increased inquiry and activity happening within America’s low-income and remote rural schools can be considered progress, especially if more students are enrolling in college or, at least, enhancing their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Further, measuring increases in student engagement as a corollary to boredom or disengagement should be added to the conversation on school performance. In both case studies, each principal was excited about the potential of technology to change the course of their students’ life trajectories.

Policymakers, state education officials, and educators should start to explore more fully such indices to measure how schools are adapting to the skills necessary for 21st century advancement. Further, educational districts should be calling upon their affiliated schools to explore these opportunities to ensure that parents and other caregivers are provided with the same type of interest and proficiency in new digital skills. As summarized in an old cliché, “it takes a village.”



I found this research report that was conducted almost a year ago at the beginning of lockdown. The report itself is very lengthy and thorough, however I posted a snippet of what I felt was relevant to my topic. Many students used resources such as the library during school days and now with the recent event of distance learning they began to lose that. There is an inequality within the access/resources that are given to schools and the ones who are being effected the most are the low-income students.


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