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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

At Home with HomeLink: Free Internet Access Connects Families and Schools

A Tennessee school district gives low-income students computers and home Web connections.
By Maya Payne Smart

The Greeneville City Schools system has a logo that features a compass, a globe, and two phrases that aren't often uttered in the same breath: "small town" and "world class." In this context, at least, the words aren't a paradox. They're an expression of a community's commitment to educational excellence.

The 15,500 residents of Greeneville, nestled in the foothills of Tennessee's Unaka Mountains, support their 2,726 K-12 students with uncommon fervor and focus. Parents, philanthropists, taxpayers, and teachers all pitch in to ensure excellent programs, top-notch instruction, and a state-of-the-art learning environment, despite the school district's small-town budget.

No Digital Divide

Smart use of technology is a key means to this end. There's broadband wireless access on every campus, each of the system's teachers has a Gateway M-285 tablet computer, and the school district is working to place an LCD projector in every classroom. A mobile-computing program turns any room into a computer lab on demand by delivering thirty charged laptops on a rolling cart, and teachers use an array of instructional technologies, including Gaggle, a free, filtered student email system, and Moodle, a free course-management system, to aid student success.

"We honestly believe that if we're not preparing our students to effectively use technology, it's the same as if we'd never taught them to add, because the world of technology for them is like a hammer for a carpenter -- it's just ubiquitous," says Larry Jones, the lead technician and network administrator for Greeneville schools.

The International Society for Technology in Education selected the Greeneville City Schools to receive its 2008 Sylvia Charp District Award for the effective and innovative implementation of a comprehensive districtwide technology plan. Along with the school system's general commitment to technology, the society cited a district program, called HomeLink, that gives students Internet access at home.

Through the program, the district gives reconditioned school computers and free Internet access to families that otherwise wouldn't be able to afford them. It funds the program with grant money and pays a third-party dial-up Internet provider directly for the families' service.

District chief technology officer Beverly Miller says the system leaped into action eight years ago when educators began to see a digital divide forming firsthand. "It seemed very unfair to us that some of our students had access to rich learning resources, while those without computers and Internet access saw their school day truly end at 3 P.M. each day," she explains. "In our efforts to extend the learning day and the learning environment, we vowed to find a way to bridge that divide for our kids."

Mission accomplished. The low-income students that receive HomeLink computers are now able to take full advantage of the Web-based email, discussions, blogging, and other tools that many Greeneville teachers use in conjunction with traditional teaching methods.

Homework 2.0

HomeLink also allows these students to take Web-based courses such as a French I summer class with teacher Jason Horne. When Horne picked students for a trial run of the online course in May 2008, HomeLink ensured that no one was excluded because he or she lacked Internet access.

The ninth graders rave about the course because they can move through its modules at their own pace during the summer months. Vacations, illnesses, and other interruptions are easily addressed in this flexible class. What's more, it frees up students' schedules for electives such as photography and chorus during the fall, and it allows kids to move on to French II sooner.

"Computers are fun, and it's a lot better to get on the computer to do things than to do paperwork," comments one student. Horne's course relies on Moodle, Tandberg videoconferencing services, and Microsoft Office's SharePoint Server, which provides a single location for collaboration and content sharing.

Horne says that developing such an online course would be unimaginable in many other rural school districts because of a lack of access to technology. Now, in a system where even low-income families have home Internet access, he's able to accommodate multiple learning styles and paces with online audio recordings of lectures and Web forums for student interaction as well as supplementary print materials, CDs, and DVDs. Horne and students meet occasionally in person, but more often they communicate via email. "It makes a huge difference in what you can do as an instructor," he says.

Small Budget, Big Impact

The benefits of home computer access are sweeping. Research has shown that it can keep students out of trouble and boost the likelihood of high school graduation by 6-8 percent. A 2008 report by researchers at the University of California at Santa Cruz stated, "Home computers may increase high school graduation rates by reducing nonproductive activities, such as truancy and crime, among children in addition to making it easier to complete school assignments."

Several companies and nonprofit organizations, including the On It Foundation, InterConnection, and ConnectKentucky, donate computers to low-income families. The Greeneville example shows that schools can do the same with their own outgrown computers.

Funding the district's technology is truly a group effort. The school board makes it a priority, even when the budget is pinched by state cutbacks. A parents' organization raises money outside of the normal funding channels and donates it to meet particular schools' needs. Teachers and administrators apply for grants to stay current with learning technology, and local philanthropists also give generously to enhance the schools' offerings.

A Family Affair

Families that receive HomeLink computers have to attend two mandatory training sessions per year that teach them how to hook up the computer, use it, and troubleshoot problems. The meetings also cover Internet safety. "It does no good to hand the technology over to a family if they don't know what to do with it," points out David Pauley, who teaches technology education and interactive multimedia design and oversees the program.

HomeLink helps families by bridging "the gap of communication that's typically a problem with that targeted group," Pauley says. Now, low-income parents can do what their more affluent peers may take for granted. They can easily access a secure Web site where the district displays their children's assignments, grades, attendance, and even disciplinary records. They can also communicate with teachers via email, an option that helps parents whose work schedules make reaching teachers by phone a challenge.

Decades of research show that parental involvement is a key component of vibrant schools. Students' academic performance and attitudes improve when their parents are engaged, and teacher morale perks up as well. Using technology, HomeLink offers families and schools another way to forge a strong connection.

Maya Payne Smart is an education and business writer in Gainesville, Florida.

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