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Oakland Undivided: How a California District Closed the Digital Divide

Digital divide
(Image credit: Photo by Franck on Unsplash)

Oakland Undivided was launched at the beginning of the pandemic with the mission of ensuring every public school student had three things: a computer, internet connection, and tech support available at their home.

“You really need all three to say that you've served that family equitably,” says Susan Beltz, chief technology officer at Oakland USD.

Oakland has approximately 53,000 students, and at the start of the pandemic only 12 percent from low-income backgrounds -- the majority of whom are Latinx or African-American -- enjoyed consistent access to a computer, internet, and tech support. 

Thanks to Oakland Undivided, more than 25,000 laptops have been purchased along with 10,000 hotspots. Now, 98 percent of Oakland’s low-income students have a computer, access to the internet, and culturally competent tech support. 

Oakland Undivided: The Power of Fundraising 

Oakland USD was able to make so much progress toward closing the digital divide thanks to school officials who made it a priority, effective partnerships, and fundraising efforts. As soon as the pandemic started, education leaders began conversations with the mayor’s office to form a strategy to close the digital divide. Once they got an idea of the scale of the problem, they began fixing it. 

“We started to develop basically an entire business model,” says Curtiss Sarikey, chief of staff for the Office of the Superintendent at Oakland USD. “What's the cost? How are we going to raise the money? How are we going to order all this equipment? How are we going to distribute to kids using all of our different assets, from procurement, to warehousing, to distribution, etc.” 

He adds, “the biggest lift was definitely the fundraising.” 

Mayor Libby Schaaf and her office helped with that and ultimately the effort raised more than $12.5 million. 

Oakland Undivided: Data and Creativity  

To get an idea of what the community’s connectivity needs were, the district conducted a massive survey that was completed by more than 34,000 families. 

“That tech check survey has given us the best landscape analysis of tech needs in Oakland that we've ever had,” Sarikey says. “That's kind of the portal by which we're identifying kids who need computers, and we're tracking who has a computer.” 

As funds and new devices came in, district officials didn’t wait. They began taking classroom computers that were no longer being used in school because the district had gone remote and getting those devices into the hands of students. Most of these devices have since been replaced with devices bought specifically for at-home use. 

Oakland Undivided: The Future of the Digital Divide  

From the beginning, district leaders recognized that though temporary solutions were important, they needed to think long-term as the digital divide existed before the pandemic and would continue after it ended if nothing was done. “We're tracking loss and damage, we have replacements baked into the model,” Sarikey says. “We are committed to closing the digital divide permanently. This wasn't just a COVID response.” 

The district is focusing on using recovery dollars to purchase student devices, and plans to create its own internet are being explored. “It’s a matter of looking at what already exists in terms of fiber throughout the city,” Beltz says. “Historically, any type of public wifi access tended to reside along business corridors. And now you're talking about needing to get those connections into people's homes. So it's a complex infrastructure project to really think through and work on, but it's an area that I think the city and certainly OUSD as well are committing to moving forward on.” 

Connection to the internet from home is vital to student success as well as in other areas of life. “The mayor is always speaking eloquently about the fact that a computer is more than an educational tool,” Sarikey says. In addition to allowing parents to learn about job opportunities and order food, “It’s connected the whole family to telehealth. It’s just that lifeline to basically resources that many of us take for granted in our life,” he says. 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a journalist, author and educator. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.