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from the Hechinger Report

June 17, 2014 1:44 PM Can High-Poverty Urban Districts Like Philadelphia Close the Digital Divide?

By Sarah Garland

When it comes to speedy Internet access in schools, which technology advocates say will be critical to ensuring that American students stay competitive globally, Philadelphia is way ahead of many districts across the country.

In the Obama administration’s new ConnectED initiative, an effort to redirect $2 billion in federal funding to put high-speed broadband in all American schools, the goal is for schools to have Internet speeds of at least 1 gigabit per second by 2017. Philadelphia schools already have 2 gigabits, and will have 20 in 18 months, says Melanie Harris, the district’s chief information officer. “We call it laying the highway,” she said. “We’ve put our schools in a great position.”

Kindergartners will soon get new iPads at the John F. Hartranft school in North Philadelphia. Until then, a small group of students takes turns playing a video game while their classmates work on four computers at the back of the room and the rest practice their reading with real books. (Video: Sarah Garland)

Kindergartners will soon get new iPads at the John F. Hartranft school in North Philadelphia. Until then, a small group of students takes turns playing a video game while their classmates work on four computers at the back of the room and the rest practice their reading with real books. (Video: Sarah Garland)

It’s a major accomplishment, but one that also highlights the difficulties of bringing technology to the nation’s neediest kids. When President Obama announced the ConnectED plan last year, he said “there’s no reason we can’t do all this.”

Yet in Philadelphia, where 87 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and school resources are scarce, the city’s schools still have far to travel before they reach the president’s goal “that virtually every child in America’s classrooms has access to the fastest Internet and the most cutting-edge learning tools.”

The speedy Internet does students and teachers little good in many Philadelphia schools. The district paid for its Internet upgrades using the federal e-rate program, a subsidy that is key to achieving the president’s goal and that can only be used for networking and telecommunications - not to buy the actual devices teachers and students use to go online. (The ConnectED initiative will not allocate new government funds, but companies recently donated $750 million in goods and services to the cause.) Overall, the district has one computer for every two students, but 60 percent of those computers are more than five years old - many are as old as nine - and will need replacing soon. Only two schools in the district have enough computers for each student.

At the same time, staff cuts have reduced the number of people available to train educators in how to use the technology they do have - to just six in a district with more than 8,000 teachers.

And Philadelphia, with about 130,000 K-12 students, doesn’t have a dedicated technology budget to help it make up the shortfall. Technology is mostly purchased through individual school-based budgets, officials said, which means principals have to make tough choices about how to allocate funding in a particularly difficult financial time for the city. (The district has a severe budget deficit and needs at least $100 million to cover basic services in the coming school year. Its budget request to the city and state calls for $320 million, partly to allow investment in new technology.)

Many American school systems are in a similar situation. Fewer than 20 percent of teachers say their school’s Internet connection meets their teaching needs, according to the White House. And according to a survey of schools by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), half of schools and libraries that apply for federal subsidies have “lower speed Internet connectivity than the average American home — despite having, on average, 200 times as many users.”

Philadelphia educators wish they had more computers, but also argue technology shouldn’t replace teachers. Jamal Dennis, teacher leader at the James G. Blaine school in North Philadelphia, shows a student how to solve a math problem on a computer program using paper and pencil. (Video: Sarah Garland)

Philadelphia educators wish they had more computers, but also argue technology shouldn’t replace teachers. Jamal Dennis, teacher leader at the James G. Blaine school in North Philadelphia, shows a student how to solve a math problem on a computer program using paper and pencil. (Video: Sarah Garland)

And just as the Obama administration is urging school districts to ramp up technology, more than two thirds of districts are cutting back on regular maintenance and replacement of equipment because of budget troubles, according to a survey published this spring by the Consortium for School Networking, a professional organization of school technology leaders.

Nevertheless, some pockets of innovation point a way forward for Philadelphia, officials say. “In really dire times there are a lot of great things going on, and people trying to make the little bit of resources they have impactful,” said Fran Newberg, Philadelphia’s deputy chief of educational technology.

Two North Philadelphia K-8 schools, John F. Hartranft and James G. Blaine, have cobbled together grants, including donations from local philanthropists, and federal funds for low-income schools and their principals have moved money around in their budgets to buy some extra computers and educational software. They’ve also discovered free programs from sites such as CK12, run by a nonprofit that curates science and math content.

“Our students deserve it, so it’s making the best of our resources,” said Jamal Dennis, Blaine’s teacher leader. “We’re working to see how far we can stretch it.” Mostly, though, “we’re at the mercy of what the district can offer.”

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