In advance of the October 2018 Tech & Learning Leadership Summit, district leaders gathered for an online roundtable. The focus of the roundtable was to share strategies for addressing digital equity in their districts, specifically what has worked best for districts as they seek to close the equity gap for gender, economics, and diverse student communities. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation.
Todd Dugan, the new superintendent in Bunker Hill, Illinois, led off the conversation with a presentation on the ways they used innovation to close the equity gap in his previous district in rural Middleton, Illinois. The district is remote, with only a local Internet company to service families in town. Kids outside the city limits only had access to the Internet through their cell phones. When going 1:1, getting coverage and connectivity in a district with no fiber and 86% poverty presents unique challenges. “Students in rural communities deserve the same opportunities as students in larger districts,” said Dugan. “We wanted our kids to use the same technology and have the same opportunities as middle-class kids in the district next door.”
Understanding that professional development was one of the critical keys to success for their 1:1 initiative, Dugan arranged for some “extreme” PD. “We made site visits to schools in the Chicago suburbs, focusing on Leyden School District, which is large, famous, and well-funded,” he said. Dugan’s educators were there to learn and tried to copy much of what Leyden was already doing. “The most important outcome of our visits was that our teachers became friends with teachers at Leyden and left there with Twitter handles and contacts. They now had people they could connect to for advice as needed.” Dugan said that this was even more important to their success than seeing Leyden’s technology in operation.
“Even trying to provide our kids with similar tech to the district next door, they still aren’t equitable. So, we looked for best-of-breed available, and we mixed and matched technology to provide them with us as much as we could. Last year, our district was probably the most successful in this desert of underfunded districts in rural Illinois,” said Dugan.
Access was also a challenge. In town, a local Internet provider worked with the district to set up $10-per-month high-speed Internet for families who were recipients of federal programs. Devices were going home with 75% of the students. However, it was impossible to provide for the other 25% as there was no access in the most remote areas of the district.
Other Approaches to Creating Equity
Randy Rogers, director of learning services at Seguin ISD in New Braunfels, Texas shared that his is a Hispanic-majority district with a significant ESL population and many working-class families without a lot of technology at home. The district implemented programs through a state grant that allowed them to send computers home with students. “We used mobile hotspots at first,” said Rogers. “Now it’s a computer with a built-in SIM card. To get one of these computers sent home, we required the parents to apply and go through training with their students.” Putting hotspots on buses in their rural district is also in the plans. “We offer tech summer camps at no charge for students, such as robotics and coding, starting at pre-K. We’re always looking for ways to expose kids to opportunities in technology they wouldn’t have access to at home,” said Rogers.
Neva Moga, instructional technology supervisor in Milwaukee Public Schools, says they’ve distributed thousands of Kajeet hotspots in Milwaukee. Most of the students who receive them qualify for free or reduced lunch. “We ended up not making it mandatory for parents to come to a meeting in order for their student to take a device home,” she said. “We treat it just like a textbook. If it’s lost, then the Chromebook has to be replaced before the student can graduate.”
Matthew X. Joseph, director of digital learning, informational technology, and innovation at Milford (MA) Public Schools, shared his district’s experience in supporting families with limited English. Milford is working to close the equity gap with collaboration among the superintendent’s office, the English Learners (EL) department, and the technology team to ensure all students have opportunities and all families have support. Jen Noorjanian, director of EL, worked with the technology department to develop evening family workshops to support families with little or no English. In their 1:1 environment, all students in grades 3–12 have Chromebooks. Approximately 31% of their population have limited English proficiency. Noorjanian worked with families to sign up for emails, as that is the primary communication channel for the district. The family classes also included translators and a multi-lingual integration specialist. Another group of classes included the G Suite so families could learn about the tools their children are using in order to support homework practice and feel part of their students’ daily learning experiences.
Tracy Daniel-Hardy, director of technology at Gulfport (MS) School District, explained that part of what they have to do to make certain they receive appropriate funds is ensure there is equity across the board, whether or not a school qualifies for Title I. “We also have a district-wide plan that reflects our culture,” she said. “We try to make our programs equitable. For instance, we want to ensure that opportunities are gender-balanced, so we offer a ‘girls who code’ program.”
Chris Jenks, director of technology for Tuscaloosa (AL) City Schools, shared that their district now has 1:1 Chromebooks for grades 1–9. But they believe the iPad would be the better device for self-contained special education classes. “We won’t let a device go home until there is a parent who comes in for orientation,” he said. “There are rubrics to use with each student to assess their specific needs in Special Ed. We want these students to have similar experiences to what the other students are having as much as possible.”