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KENT, WA — As students stream off the schools buses here, the typical end-of-day scene unfolds with a twist.

Thrown over the kids’ shoulders are sleek black laptop bags with the name of their district emblazoned on them.

As part of an effort to bridge the so-called digital divide – the gap between rich and poor when it comes to access to technology – the Kent School District has for six years given every student a laptop, beginning in seventh grade.

But some of these students don’t need to carry the bags home – they can’t get online at home. It’s a problem that more districts are facing as they turn to technology to revolutionize their teaching.

Internet access and education
Just a typical day for a student in Kent Meridian High School. (Photo: Rachel Monahan)

In Kent, about 9 percent of students, or roughly 2,500 kids, can’t get online once they go home, district surveys show. Many of them are the neediest students, the very ones district officials believe would benefit from more exposure to technology, to help them catch up to their more advantaged peers.

“If you do this well, in the process what you’re going to do is widen that gap — not close it,” said Thuan Nguyen, Kent School District’s assistant superintendent.

With the laptops, the district has shifted its instruction away from standard approaches to homework, such as reading the textbook or completing a worksheet, Nguyen says.

“Once you’ve converted the curriculum, the material, it’s more project-based learning,” he said. “You kind of need the Internet for all those pieces to work well. If you’re not able to provide that last level of connectivity, you’ve now widened the gap in terms of what kids can do, not to mention the expectation around that.”

“If you do this well, in the process what you’re going to do is widen that gap, not close it.” – Thuan Nguyen, Kent School District Assistant Superintendent.

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to increase funding for the federal e-rate program, which provides money for school districts to access the Internet, by $1.5 billion for a total of $3.9 billion annually. It’s unlikely, however, that the funding will help districts expand access outside of school walls.

Roughly half of low-income families nationwide lack Internet service. Kent, a city of 124,000 between Seattle and Tacoma, whose 27,000-student district covers parts of six other towns and some rural areas, clearly is ahead of the curve in trying to address this problem of equity – including most recently installing Wi-Fi hotspots at three community centers in public housing. But these efforts have been fraught with difficulties, showing how hard it may be for other districts to close the digital divide.

“The theory is that if we can create not just a digital school district but a digital community, then we can create the infrastructure to eliminate the equity issue in terms of access – to content and knowledge and information,” Edward Lee Vargas, the just-departed superintendent for Kent, who recently went to the White House to argue that schools’ federal technology dollars should be permitted to go toward funding out-of-school Internet connections for low-income kids.

“It becomes a civil rights issue,” said Vargas, who led the district for five years until last month. “They’re being denied equal access to knowledge and information that are part of education in the twenty-first century.”

Kent School District As a Model

As the Obama administration pushes schools to modernize their technology, Kent stands out for its innovations, and offers lessons about what challenges other districts may face. Besides the laptop program and the wireless Internet access at every school, the district has upgraded its broadband speed to 2 gigabits – ahead of the Obama administration goals for schools to have 1 gigabit per second by 2017.

Internet access and education
(Photo: Rachel Monahan)

But Kent isn’t a wealthy district. Last year, 52 percent of students qualified for free and reduced lunch, and many are new immigrants. Forty percent speak a language other than English at home, district officials said, while 18 percent are enrolled in bilingual instruction. Perhaps because of the influence of the tech industry in the Seattle area nearby, however, voters have embraced the district’s efforts to bolster its technology. Kent has had a dedicated technology levy since 2000. And voters have stuck with it, renewing it each time, most recently to expand the so-called one-to-one program into the elementary schools, meaning each child in kindergarten through sixth grade will also have access to a computer.

To keep pace with the technology being introduced into the classroom, the school district has pushed to bring Internet access to points in the community where it is needed.

Related: How can schools close the technology gap and how much will it cost?

On a Wednesday night in October in the Birch Creek community center, high school and junior high school students came to shoot hoops, to go to Girl Scout meetings and to do their online homework assignments.

A dozen students clustered around laptops set up to on heavy-duty folding tables near an Internet kiosk the school district had installed two years earlier. The kiosk resembles an ATM and includes a wireless Internet hotspot, as well as a built-in computer with a touch screen that any community member can use to access news on the district and that parents can use to access a district program called Skyward, which provides grades and attendance records for kids.

“It becomes a civil rights issue. They’re being denied equal access to knowledge and information that are part of education in the 21st century.” – Former Kent Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas.

Muhsin Shamdeen, 12, a seventh grader and aspiring professional skateboarder, was working on a letter to President Obama about Christopher Columbus, with help from a community center staffer.

Using an online version of Spark Notes (her teacher had suggested consulting the guide), Ayan Mohamed, 15, a sophomore immigrant from Somalia, sat working on an end-of-quarter essay.

In class the computer helps when there’s something confusing, she said. “You can look it up right there,” she said – a model of research she applied to figuring out which quotes to use in her essay, on the theme of technology’s impacts and disappointments as portrayed by the books they’d read for the course.

The kiosks are designed to be free for the district to replicate: They cost $7,000 upfront, a price the district hopes will be covered by income from business partners who’ll get to advertise on them, and they’re located in places already wired for the Internet, so there’s no ongoing expense for the district.

It’s a novel program, but has a couple wrinkles. That evening, for example, the Internet kiosk was working. But it had just been put back online for the first time in two weeks. The system had gone down, likely after it was unplugged during a cleaning. The trick: plugging it back in and restarting the computer.

It turned out the outage hadn’t been much of an impediment, because in fact Kent Youth and Family Services, which runs programs for students in the center, had installed a separate Wi-Fi network a year and a half ago at the Birch Creek community center. (The other two community centers had Wi-Fi set up two months ago.)

Overlap isn’t a terrible issue to have when it comes to fickle Wi-Fi networks – but it’s one the district’s deputy superintendent of technology was wholly unaware of, calling it “good feedback,” when informed of it by the reporter.

Related: When schools can’t get online

The kiosk is, after all, a pilot for the district, designed for working out the kinks before being put up all around town. But if the idea is to reach kids who don’t have access after school hours, students point to another challenge: the kids without Internet access at home generally live scattered across the district; they aren’t concentrated in particular location, such as public housing.

That’s partly because of the district’s work with Comcast’s Internet Essentials and other Internet providers’ programs to get low-income families to sign up for Internet at $9.95 a month. Kent has done extremely well at getting families to sign up – at least when compared against Comcast’s list of the 50 largest cities in the country the company serves. Not one of them has a higher rate of signups of eligible families than Kent.

The Internet Essentials program puts the “penetration rate” in Kent, a smaller but clearly successful market, at 23 percent, with just under 700 families getting access through the program in a district with 27,000 students – or, by Comcast’s calculations, just under 8 percent of the district’s students.

(The other providers haven’t made their statistics available, Kent school district officials said.)

internet_projected [Converted]

District officials describe Internet Essentials as a good program but not enough to meet their needs. And Internet Essentials has its critics in part because what’s provided is the lowest-level modem, with no Wi-Fi – and one that can only be used by one computer at a time. Comcast estimated there are roughly three kids in each family that is part of the program in Kent.

“Until we find a way to provide free Internet access, there’s always going to be some measure of the population left behind; we have a long way to go to solving this problem,” said Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Minneapolis-based Community Broadband Networks Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which advocates for community-built broadband networks.

Mitchell also called the Comcast program “an incredibly self-serving approach to get better publicity while doing the bare minimum.”

A Comcast spokesman, Charlie Douglas, defended the program and noted the company has agreed to extend it. “It’s not a sustainable business program,” said Douglas. “It’s not to make money.”

Related: Digital education is supposed to transform public education, but many schools can’t even get online

Because Kent School District keeps tabs on its laptops, district officials could technically drill down to find out exactly which students don’t log in after hours. But the district has opted to be less intrusive, and to survey students instead.

The district’s sizeable immigrant population tends to be more transient and therefore less connected. At Kent-Meridian High School, with an enrollment of 2,100 students, a thousand extra students cycle through each year, district officials noted.

A few years ago, the district cut a deal with Internet providers under which the district would pay for ongoing service at home for students lacking service and the Internet service provider would cover installation. The trouble was that by the time the companies had processed the request, too many households had already moved on. Despite pushback from the companies, the district kept the program going for a year, before abandoning it.

Where to Go From Here

All Kent schools provide Wi-Fi, which is accessible from the parking lot. Early in the laptop program, Assistant Superintendent Nguyen recalled showing up to schools late or early to see cars parked, and inside, the glowing faces of students hovering over their laptops. But as community access to the Internet has expanded, that has happened less.

Several square blocks of Kent’s urban center are now wired, but the connection isn’t reliable enough for students, said officials, who had once hoped the project might span the whole community. School officials have also tried to convince local businesses to allow teenagers to use their Wi-Fi for free, with no obligation to purchase, say, a latte, or a burger.

City Councilman and former school board member Jim Berrios, who owns the restaurant Golden Steer, said that he has offered to allow students the use of his banquet halls when they’re not in use for business; so far no one has taken him up on it.

“I don’t think schools have really promoted it,” he said, adding that sometimes students do come into the restaurant and use their Wi-Fi as customers.

The district is also working on a pilot program for checking out Wi-Fi-enabled devices from the library. (Chicago and New York libraries have embarked on similar measures.)

Nguyen is hesitant about the program, however; it requires participants to publicly admit poverty when they go to the counter to check out the device.

The district has sought help from the Obama administration’s ConnectED initiative, which has enlisted corporate partners to help with updating Internet access at schools. Though most of the focus is on bringing outdated schools up to speed, Sprint and AT&T pledged $100 million each to provide home Internet access for school-issued computers, tablets and other devices. The Kent district has spotty Sprint service, so has applied twice to AT&T’s program and will do so again, district officials said, in hopes of finding yet another way to improve home Internet access.

“It’s definitely a tough problem and one that needs to get solved, but there’s no easy answer right now,” said Evan Marwell, CEO of Education SuperHighway, which helps school districts set up or improve their broadband access.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Digital Education.

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