Digital Divide

Engage Parents as Partners to Close the Digital Divide

As a homegrown solution, schools aren't waiting for federal funding. Instead, they are enlisting parents as partners to help close the digital divide.
Five young students are leaning against a bus all looking at mobile devices.
Photo Credit: ©Hero Images/500px

When Superintendent Darryl Adams arrived in the Coachella Valley Unified School District in California in 2010, he found himself in a community on the wrong side of the digital divide. Poverty is pervasive in this region southeast of Palm Springs, with nearly all students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. Some 68% of students are English language learners. Parents include migrant workers who come and go with the growing seasons.

"None of these kids were truly connected," says Adams. In the information age, he saw that disconnect from technology as "a form of educational malpractice." That's why he led his district on a successful campaign to put iPads into the hands of every student, preK-12, and support teachers in making the shift to digital learning.

Watch Adams explain his district's #FutureReady approach in this video from the Office of Educational Technology:

But as Adams and others have learned, devices alone won't close the digital divide. To really level the playing field, kids also need access to high-speed internet when they take devices home. That's not yet the case for some five million U.S. households with children of school age, according to the Pew Research Center. When devices do go home, parents who may be unfamiliar with technology need to be ready to help their kids become digital citizens.

Efforts to close the digital divide continue at the federal level. President Obama's ConnectED initiative aims to close the technology gap in schools and connect 99% of America's students to high-speed Internet. Persistent obstacles to digital equity are addressed in a new report, Opportunity for All? Technology and Learning for Lower Income Families. The authors find that, while most parents recognize the benefits that technology offers their children and themselves, many lower-income families are "under-connected," often relying on mobile devices with only limited functionality. The Council of Economic Advisers, in this issue brief, shows that the poorest neighborhoods and most rural places still have the farthest to go to close the divide.

Some schools aren't waiting for help to arrive. As a homegrown solution, they are enlisting parents as partners to help close the digital divide.

Everybody Learns

"With the right approach, technology integration leads to better engagement with parents along with better academic outcomes," says Agustin Urgiles. He directs an initiative called School2Home, funded by the California Emerging Technology Fund and The Children's Partnership. School2Home partners with low-performing middle schools to support technology integration in both urban and rural areas of California. Currently, 19 schools in 10 districts are involved. The School2Home model is comprehensive by design, incorporating planning, teacher professional development, evaluation, and more.

There's one unusual catch: Before kids get their devices, parents have to participate in several hours of technology training. Parent classes start with equipment basics, but quickly move on to more advanced topics, such as how to check students' progress online, communicate with teachers, and encourage online safety and digital citizenship. "Once we get to 80% of parents trained," Urgiles adds, "you see a transformation of the school culture."

At Winters Middle School, a School2Home partner site in northern California, the initial goal of 80% parent engagement wasn't high enough. Principal John Barsotti set the bar at 100%, arguing that "all kids need access." Micah Studer was a brand-new assistant principal when the 1:1 Chromebooks rollout launched in summer 2014. He led the charge with parent classes on weekends and after school. The school provided childcare to families that needed it and snacks for those who came hungry. "Getting to that first 80% was easy," Studer says in hindsight. He was thrilled with the quick results, "but as John [Barsotti] reminded me, the goal was 100%."

To engage the hardest-to-reach families, Studer and team "worked the phones like we were running a major political campaign." Sometimes the barrier turned out to be a scheduling challenge for parents who were working two jobs to make ends meet. Sometimes language concerns were the issue. "We started communicating almost everything in both English and Spanish," Studer says. "That tells our parents: You are a valued member of our school community. Your language is not a barrier to participation."

To reach the very last holdouts, Studer went to a community housing project and conducted tech lessons around kitchen tables. He says that experience taught him, "It's not enough to open the door and invite parents in. You have to be willing to walk through the door yourself and go into the community."

Winters Middle School is now in its second year with School2Home. The rollout has reached all 350 students in grades six to eight. Teachers work with an instructional technology coach to explore various uses of technology, such as Google docs or Edmodo to encourage online collaboration. One of the best indicators of success, from Studer's perspective, is that the "cool factor" is wearing off. "We don't want kids to think this is flashy. We want technology to be an everyday tool," he says, and something that everyone uses.

WiFi Workarounds

Back in the Coachella Valley, Superintendent Adams and his team have had to think creatively to overcome barriers to connectivity. It wasn't enough to put iPads in the hands of every student and every teacher. It wasn't enough to train parents on digital literacy. If internet access didn't follow kids home, the neediest students had no onramp to the information highway.

Taking a no excuses approach, Coachella Valley has put WiFi routers on school buses so kids can do their homework during long commutes. At the end of the day, those buses are parked at mobile home parks and in other under-resourced neighborhoods, creating free hotspots for families. The idea was clever enough to earn a shout-out from President Obama during a ConnectED summit of superintendents.

Meanwhile, schools in both rural and urban areas continue working on their own workarounds to improve internet access.

Stevenson Middle School in the Los Angeles Unified School District is a good example. Some 150 students take part in blended learning through a School2Home partnership. Academic growth has been dramatic for the cohort of "Chromebook kids," says Gustavo Reynoso, assistant principal. He's seen some readers increase their Lexile scores by as much as 300 points in a single school year.

Yet Reynoso estimates that 40% of students do not have WiFi at home. On evenings and weekends, he sees kids sitting outside the school building to get on the school network. "Kids do what they need to do," he says, such as doing their homework at Starbucks, McDonald's, or the local library. He has helped some parents use their mobile phones to create internet hotspots. "It's a workaround," he admits, "but we can't have kids out at 10 at night looking for WiFi."

Has your school or district incorporated parent engagement in technology planning? What's working to close the digital divide in your community? Please share your strategies in the comments below.

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