Urban school districts still don’t have equal access to digital tools and education

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Then-President Obama visits with students and engages in coding during the "Hour of Code" event in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, in Washington, D.C., Dec. 8, 2014. Official White House Photo.

I teach at Bulkeley High School in Hartford and so often I find students who lack even the most basic digital literacy skills. Asking students to log into an online platform will take 15 minutes. Organizing documents in Google Drive will take even longer. These are the basic skills which a governmental commission has frequently reiterated from the year 2005 to the present. If this objective has stood for 12 years –the standard measure of time for a student to be enrolled in K to 12 education –– why is it that my students are still coming to me without even the most basic skills in digital literacy?

The answer comes down to equal access. In a time where school funding is on everyone’s mind, it is important to remain cognizant of how that funding truly impacts Connecticut’s students. As we press inexorably forward into an era of ever-increasingly digitalism, our state’s poorest schools, when accounting for local taxable contributions to the school system juxtaposed against state funding, are clearly forced to bear the brunt of what truly problematizes education technologies: access.

Per Connecticut’s Commission for Educational Technology’s 2016 Annual Report, “While 70 percent of teachers nationally assign homework that requires access to online tools and resources, more than 8 percent of Connecticut’s residents 18 and younger do not have a broadband connection at home (2015 U.S. Census data). Thanks to efforts such as those of the Connecticut Education Network (CEN) to connect every school and library in the state, the “digital divide” is shrinking at the school level, but gaps still exist in access to broadband and devices for students outside the classroom.”

At Bulkeley, many of my students do not have an internet connection at home. The same is true for many Hartford Public Schools students, and many other urban districts in the state.

As the school funding battle intensifies in Connecticut with Gov. Dannel Malloy preparing to steeply cut education budgets across the state, it is easy to forget the smaller issues within the budget itself. One of those increasingly troubling issues has been ––and will continue to be–– educational technology and access. Educational technology is exactly what it sounds like: technological tools that are utilized in the classroom to increase educational outcomes. However, in our state’s urban districts, those outcomes may never be fully realized.

I teach in Hartford’s public school system and I have seen the slow digital transition begin to take shape. However, this transformation is not working as it should; my students are still entering my classroom without the digital skills they need to succeed.

That “digital divide” does not only factor in the problems of unequal access, but also inadequate preparation for educators in utilizing education technologies in the classroom. If this issue is being targeted by our federal government as well as our state government, surely equity in education technology is an issue that needs to be addressed.

“[W]e know that the digital divide is growing, and we know that students in areas without access to tools of technology and the Internet will struggle to participate economically and politically.”

Owing to this lack of access, and to keep fidelity to Connecticut’s own educational technology initiatives, Hartford is made to pay for student access. The problem is that Hartford does not really pay for this initiative––rather, it falls to schools to apply for grants to become “Centers of Innovation.” Such an economic ecosystem is unsustainable; grant-writing is a time-consuming process and is never guaranteed. It would hardly be fair to provide access for one year, only to have it disappear the next.

The damage that would do to an extremely sensitive population of Connecticut’s students would be irreparable, and that is what so often does happen. During this time of budgetary concern, it is important to remain cognizant of the costs associated with an urban district. Many of those things we so often take for granted are not so easily accessible for others.

Gage William Salicki teaches social studies at Bulkeley High School in Hartford.

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