The red-brick building of Ashburn Community Elementary School sits on a quiet street of bungalows, two blocks from the commuter rail line that cuts through the city’s Far Southwest Side.
The principal, Jewel Diaz, is a veteran who’s led Ashburn since 2003, the year after it opened. Nearly all of her students are low-income children of color, and a survey the school conducted last year showed that dozens of them don’t have internet access at home. To make up for this, Diaz has tried to compensate at school.
But with a tight budget, Diaz says buying enough computers is like “trying to climb a different mountain” each year. Cuts are on the horizon, and new purchases for the coming school year will “go out the window.”
“Everyone should have the same playing field, but that’s just not how things work,” Diaz says. “So we find ourselves scrambling and being creative, trying to make sure our students have the same things as everyone else.”
Ashburn’s dilemma isn’t unique. Many Chicago public schools face similar problems, whether it’s a dearth of up-to-date computers, internet too slow to accommodate digital learning or a lack of teacher training on how to integrate technology into the classroom.
At a time when technology is becoming ever more deeply embedded in daily life and as a part of education, the digital divide in schools is particularly significant in Chicago.
Nearly 90 percent of CPS students are low-income children of color, and are more likely than their peers to lack the latest technology at home.
Janice Jackson, the district’s chief education officer, recognizes the disparities. Despite the district’s ongoing fiscal woes, she hopes CPS will be able to shift resources to help level the playing field.
“Why should students in a selective school have access to real-time media, computers and technology, [but not] students who weren’t lucky enough to attend a selective-enrollment school?” Jackson says. “For me, it’s an issue of equity and providing more access for children.”
The digital divide in schools compounds what low-income students often experience in their homes and communities. In the education world, the disparity is known as the “homework gap” because it limits students’ ability to complete their assignments outside of school.
Nationally, according to the Pew Research Center, some 5 million households with school-age children lack high-speed internet access at home, and they are disproportionately low-income, black and Latino. Among Chicago schoolchildren in sixth through 12th grades, about 8 percent lack any kind of internet at home, according to a 2013 report by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. About one-quarter of students said they lacked a high-speed connection.
Other studies confirm those findings. A Harvard researcher found that poor Chicago households with children were less likely than other households to have high-speed internet, according to 2013 data. And Chicago ranked among the 25 worst-connected large cities for poor families, according to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s analysis of 2014 data. More than half the city’s households that have an annual income of $35,000 or less don’t have any internet access at home.
Geography illustrates the disparity. In many North Side communities, 80 percent or more of households have high-speed internet, but in some predominantly black parts of the South and West sides, that drops to 40 percent or less, according to 2014 Federal Communications Commission data.
Since 2011, the Mayor’s Office has partnered with Comcast on a program aimed at closing the homework gap by providing $10-a-month broadband internet and $150 computers to low-income families with school-age children. Some 35,000 Chicago households have connected to the internet through the program — more than in any other city.
Comcast has also set up “learning zones” in Chicago over the last three years to provide students and others with free access to the internet and computers at community organizations in neighborhoods with limited internet access. One zone spans Bronzeville, Englewood and North Lawndale, while a second is in Edgewater, Rogers Park and Uptown. A third, added this year, includes Fuller Park, Washington Park and Englewood.
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But while the digital divide in homes is evident geographically, the digital revolution in schools is not.
Even though most schools lack extensive, up-to-date technology, a Catalyst Chicago analysis of data from fall 2015 found that the disparities don’t fall along the usual lines of race, class and community often seen in CPS. (To download the data, click here.)
Schools in the same neighborhood sometimes offer students vastly different exposure to technology. In Little Village, Castellanos Elementary School got a shipment of iPads when it became a “welcoming school” and took in children displaced by school closings in 2013; now, the school has more than two devices per child.
But a dozen blocks away at Spry Community Links High School, there was one device for every two students last fall. Since then, Principal Francisco Borras says, the school won some Chromebooks as a finalist for a competitive technology grant and purchased more. But to get to his desired ratio of one Chromebook per student, Borras is hoping another private grant will come through. “There is still overwhelmingly a need for access to technology,” he says.
The district tries to help needier schools by offering them donated equipment, a lower-cost leasing program and shopping events where schools can buy repurposed technology from within CPS.
But more than three-quarters of schools — 395 of 515 — still had less than one device per student last fall, whether a desktop, laptop or tablet, according to a Catalyst analysis. (The data doesn’t indicate the age of the devices and does not include charter schools.)
Principals have control over their technology purchases and not all believe one-to-one computing is necessary. But educators at low-income schools often say they would prefer for students to have their own device. CPS officials say they are working on a new technology plan that will support one-to-one initiatives.
“I believe that sharing is good, but it’s not good when it comes to technology,” Diaz says. “The student needs to have access to information quickly.”
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Wealthier schools can rely on donations from parents or “friends of” fundraising groups to buy technology. Some schools, like Disney Magnet School in Uptown on the Far North Side, look for corporate partners. Disney Principal Kathleen Hagstrom says school leaders have to have a business perspective. “It’s up to individual schools to figure out how they’re going to get the resources,” she says.
But low-income schools are left to compete for a limited pool of foundation and nonprofit grants to offset the costs.
Some private funders specifically target low-income schools. But competition for these grants is tough and some funders are looking for schools in neighborhoods they consider a “good investment.”
One donor is kCura, a Chicago legal software company that’s awarded $250,000 technology grants to four schools over the last three years. This year, Funston Elementary in Logan Square beat out 56 other applicants, including Spry. kCura’s Dorie Blesoff says Funston stuck out because of its strong administrative leadership, involved community and ability to do “more with less.”
“We really have had no extra money for any type of technology this year, so this is enabling us to purchase things that otherwise our students literally would not have,” says Funston’s principal, Julie Hallums. The grant will pay for teacher training and an iPad or Chromebook for nearly every student.
But schools sometimes struggle to articulate well-thought-out plans that funders are looking for. “A lot of times, what we see is they don’t have that vision for themselves because there has not been an opportunity for them in the past,” says Trevor Drewry, who until recently oversaw workplace engagement and corporate giving at kCura.
District officials say they’re working to expand this program and are looking to bring in more companies interested in supporting schools in this way.
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The more computers and other devices a school has, and the more students use them, the more internet bandwidth is needed. But many Chicago schools lack adequate connectivity.
Three years ago, the federal government launched ConnectED, an ambitious program aimed at bridging the digital divide for students in low-income schools, including those in rural, web-isolated areas.
Noting that just one in five U.S. students had access to high-speed internet in their schools, President Barack Obama called for targeting and increasing federal E-rate funds to bring faster broadband to 99 percent of students by 2018. E-rate reimburses schools and libraries for spending to upgrade internet connections and pays their phone and internet bills. High-poverty and rural schools get more money.
The ConnectED initiative has had some success nationally. According to EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that advocates for better internet access in schools, 77 percent of the 6,800 districts that paid for broadband with E-rate last year met the federal government’s recommended target for internet connectivity. That’s up from 30 percent just two years prior.
But Chicago is not meeting the federal target for internet access of 100 kilobits per second per student — the minimum bandwidth experts say is necessary for digital learning. According to a Catalyst analysis of CPS data, 41 percent of 515 schools don’t meet the target, and just over half of those are among the city’s highest-poverty schools. (Data do not include charters.)
Chicago applied for $23 million in E-rate funds to upgrade internet connections in schools this year. But in the face of ongoing financial troubles, CPS didn’t finish the work it had proposed, and got just $3.8 million for upgrades in 50 schools. CPS has asked the federal government for an extension to finish the work so it can get the rest of the money. Without that permission, the remaining $19.2 million will disappear.
The 50 schools were chosen based on the age of their internet infrastructure, district officials said. Schools that had more problems with connectivity in the past or had an online learning initiative got higher priority.
Shoop Academy of Math, Science and Technology in Morgan Park on the Far Southwest Side was one of the 50.
Principal Salik Mukarram says his school needed better internet to accommodate its growing technology inventory.
When Mukarram arrived at Shoop three years ago, the school had just one laptop cart and a computer lab of outdated, often-broken machines. This year, the school has about 210 devices — or about one for every three students — including iPads and Chromebooks.
“Now we can have every device on and we don’t have to worry,” Mukarram says. “We can go full-blast and I know our building can handle personalized learning or web-based programs.”
Connectivity problems are especially common in older schools, something teacher Jason Pitak has seen at Belmont-Cragin Elementary, parts of which date back to 1920.
“Some areas of the school are dead zones,” Pitak says.
To reach the federal government’s even higher internet connectivity goal for 2018, significant investments will be needed. Catalyst found that just one in eight district-run schools met the government’s higher target of 1 megabit per second per student last fall.
CPS officials plan to upgrade connectivity at all elementary schools and to apply next year for an additional $8.8 million in E-rate funds for better broadband routers. High schools already have the fastest internet available.
“We will continue working to upgrade our schools so that each of our students has access to high-speed broadband, 1:1 technology and computer science education, among the other essential resources that a 21st century education requires,” CPS spokesman Michael Passman said in a statement.
Even with more computers and better internet, schools still need teachers with the right training to incorporate technology into their classrooms.
Yet the vast majority of schools lack a technology coordinator to implement digital learning and oversee technology. Just 125 schools had full-time technology coordinators as of this spring. A majority of those schools offer special programs focused on math, science and technology, or a selective program for higher-achieving students. In other schools, staff pull double duty to juggle technology responsibilities.
Training on how to use technology is especially critical in lower-income schools. Children in these schools are more likely to experience “passive” technology use, such as sitting at a computer to work on a reading program or complete an online worksheet, says Katrina Stevens, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, who spoke at a May panel for education reporters.
Schools with trained staff can use technology in more creative ways, like connecting online with scientists or other professionals, or teaching computer science to students.
The federal government has highlighted the need for better educator training — something that was encouraged through the ConnectED initiative. And the 2013 Consortium report on technology use in Chicago schools underscored the need for “ongoing professional development and professional learning communities for teachers” in technology.
Consortium researchers found that teachers at magnet and selective-enrollment schools felt more supported in their efforts to integrate technology into their teaching, compared to teachers elsewhere. And they were more likely to believe their schools were doing a good job preparing students to use technology proficiently.
Diaz, the Ashburn principal, encourages teachers to develop lessons to go along with educational software programs so students aren’t being told to “just go on” the computer.
For example, one seventh-grade teacher in her school uses the foundations of ThinkCERCA, a popular online reading program, to teach her students about building arguments.
Last school year, the teacher took her students to visit Chicago’s federal court building and Northside College Prep’s debate team, and then held a mock trial so students could practice what they’d learned.
“There has to be teacher interaction first for the program to work,” Diaz says. “To avoid passive learning you have to look at blended models that empower students and educators. You need to integrate effective teaching.”
Melissa Sanchez contributed to this story.