CHICAGO – On a recent Friday morning, 15-year-old Jerod Franklin stared at his hands as he labored to type up memories of the first time he grilled steak. Next to him, classmate Brittany Levy tackled a piece about a trip to the hospital.
The Bronzeville Scholastic Institute ninth-graders were working on writing assignments in the school’s homework lab, whose 24 computers are shared by nearly a thousand students from the three schools that occupy DuSable High School’s campus on the South Side.
“The ratio of computers to students is absurd,” said English teacher Andrew Flaherty, a veteran educator who reports that many of his students cannot afford computers at home and don’t get enough time to use them at school. As a result, Bronzeville Scholastic students born into a digital era struggle with basic skills, such as saving work to a flash drive and setting margins in Microsoft Word.
At a time when awareness of technology and its potential uses in school is growing nationally, this public high school of 550 often feels like a poster child for the so-called digital divide.
The term “digital divide” used to refer to whether classrooms had computers connected to the Internet. Now, the bar has been raised, as newer software programs require high-speed connections and as WiFi-dependent devices such as iPads make their way into classrooms.
Even though Chicago Public Schools reports spending about $40 million a year on technology, Bronzeville Scholastic lags behind its peers and exemplifies a dangerous disparity that exists in the United States, according to Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.
“Chicago in particular probably highlights the digital divide that’s across the country,” Patrick said. “Some schools may have access to one-to-one pilots, and other schools have old infrastructure that is barely functional, so that kids don’t have access to the computers.”
As a result, Patrick said, students are “not building their technology skills, (and) they’re not able to access some of the courses and supplemental materials that would help them ramp up and be successful.”
Technology spending in schools varies widely across the country, as some districts reap the benefits of grants and parental donations, while others tap local, state and federal funding.
The Bronzeville school has fallen behind at a time when CPS is trying to get out front. In December, the Consortium for School Networking, an association of school-district technology leaders, selected Chicago as one of 13 districts in the country to develop best practices on the innovative use of digital media in education — and technology use is flourishing in some Chicago-area schools.
In September, the Chicago Quest Charter School opened its doors on the Near North Side with a collaborative learning curriculum that encourages middle school students to embrace the wired world by building video games and websites. Recently, students were taking notes on iPads and developing ideas for a game they would create over the course of the semester in teams.
Deerfield Public Schools District 109 provides about 2,000 computer workstations for 3,100 students, and students can log in to district computers from home to continue work they started at school.
That access to technology helps students to become better 21st-century learners, said Greg Himebaugh, assistant superintendent for finance and operations for the district.
“The technology allows students to do research and to develop critical thinking,” he said.
Wilmette Public Schools District 39, which serves more than 3,500 students from prekindergarten through eighth grade, has at least one lab with desktop computers in each of its schools, as well as laptops and some iPads for classroom use.
“We definitely view technology as a learning tool, using online resources to gather information,” said Adam Denenberg, the district’s director of technology and media services.
Nearly every U.S. school has at least one instructional computer with Internet access, according to a 2010 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, which also found a ratio of 3.1 students for every computer connected to the Internet. On almost every measure, though, ratios were worse in high-poverty schools such as Bronzeville Scholastic, where 93 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
CPS spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus said that the $40 million spent annually by the city on technology is distributed equitably and that all city schools receive additional funds that they can choose to spend on technology. Schools can receive additional assistance from three support centers across the city, which provide help with budgeting, security and the maintenance of facilities, including technology.
Bronzeville got a boost this year when Best Practice High School, which is closing, donated a roomful of the West Side school’s computers. But Bronzeville Scholastic’s principal, Latunja Williams, says it will take at least $3,000 to update the hard drives, which are too slow to run many current programs.
Two years ago, school librarian Sara Sayigh received a $15,000 grant that paid for many of the computers in the shared homework lab. The rest, however, can be unreliable and can’t be easily fixed when something goes wrong.
“We do not have a designated tech person in this building,” said Sayigh. Instead, an “audio-visual” person who Sayigh says is not qualified to perform maintenance on computers is responsible.
Flaherty says the computer in his classroom takes more than 20 minutes to boot up. The slower hard drives make it difficult to run newer software programs. Ninth-grade English teacher Tijwana Witt said computers break down frequently.
Nationally, schools that provide laptops and tablets to students often grab the headlines, worrying educators at less tech-savvy schools that their students are being left behind their wired peers.
“I’ve seen huge disparities, where I’ve gone into classrooms in urban districts and the paint is peeling and there’s not a computer in sight, to very high-end districts where every kid has an iPad they can bring home,” said Lisa Gillis, president of Integrated Educational Strategies, a national nonprofit based in California that helps schools implement digital curricula. “We have a long way to go.”
A version of this story appeared in The Chicago Tribune on January 25, 2012. Tribune freelance reporter Jessica Tobacman contributed.