Ohio initiative to help bridge digital divide, homework gap

CLEVELAND (AP) — Daysha Higgins had a computer at home until it blew out nearly two years ago, but she’s never had the internet at home

At 12, she lives in a public housing development and spends much of her time at the Outhwaite Community Center in Cleveland, where she does homework and works on other computer programs as part of an afterschool program four days a week.

“I think it’s necessary to have a computer at home, because she can look up information to help with tests, tutorials and other programs,” said her mother Danielle, 34. “Right now, when she wants to get on the computer, she goes to the community center, or her godmother’s house or a friend’s house.”

At home where money is tight, Higgins lives with her mother, Danielle and grandmother, Valerie, 64. Both are unemployed.

Not far away in another nearby housing project, April Willis, 17, better understands the challenges of not having internet access at home in a digital age. With each passing grade, her internet needs increased. For the last three years she spent hours at a nearby library, the community college, after school, and even fast food restaurants that had free Wi-Fi access.

“It’s hard when you don’t have Wi-Fi at home because you have to find places that have internet in order to get homework done or whatever else you need to do,” Willis said. “It’s just very stressful sometimes because you have to plan and figure out how to get things done.”

Both Higgins and Willis are among 350 Cleveland students who soon will receive tablets and wireless devices, as part of ConnectHome, a national program announced in July by President Obama. It includes internet service providers, nonprofits, and private sector organizations. They are collaborating to offer low-cost broadband, technical training, digital skills programs and devices for residents in assisted housing units.

Cleveland is one of 28 communities nationwide selected to participate in the program aimed at closing the digital gap. Dubbed ClevelandConnects, the public-private initiative with the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority and the City of Cleveland hosted a kick-off event Tuesday afternoon after at the King Kennedy Boys and Girls Club, where partners ranging from Sprint to the public library will be on hand along with students and residents.

“The Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority is thrilled that the ConnectHome program in Cleveland is moving forward,” said Jeffery K. Patterson, chief executive officer of CMHA. “This initiative will be of great assistance in helping to provide broadband access to the homes of low-income residents who have youth participating in some of CMHA’s after-school learning programs. Clearly, this type of broadband access has become a necessity to educational efforts and success of our school-age youth.”

There is a stark disparity in access to technology, between students who have high-speed internet at home and an estimated five million families who are without it and are struggling to keep up nationwide. Locally, CMHA estimates that only eight percent of their nearly 10,000 public housing units have a broadband subscription, and only 13 percent of households in those same homes own an internet device.

While many middle-class students go home to internet access, too many lower-income children go unplugged when school ends. The digital gap means that doing research, writing papers, and communicating digitally with teachers involves finding places to get the work done.

It’s a national challenge. In some towns, as many as 40 percent of households have no access to the internet, among the lowest access rates in the country. In cities like Detroit, Miami and New Orleans, as many as a third of the homes don’t have broadband, and children crowd libraries and fast-food restaurants to use free hot spots.

In September, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance released new rankings of America’s “25 Worst-Connected Cities in 2014” — for all households, and for households with annual incomes below $35,000.

Cleveland ranked nine spots from the bottom with 33.5 percent of all households not having access, while Brownsville, Texas was at the bottom with 44.8 percent.

LaShawna Adams-Mitchell, program manager for four of the 21st Century Afterschool Learning Programs affiliated with CMHA, said she’s excited so many students primarily kindergarten through eighth grades will be getting tablets in Cleveland. Nine high school students, involved in a leadership CMHA job placement and community service program, including Willis, will also get tablets.

Adams-Mitchell said even though some youths have smartphones, you can explore more with a computer tablet. She hopes the tablets not only allow students to tie in to programs such as photography and Google docs, but also encourages area schools to use technology in and outside of classrooms.

“Some of our youth have smartphones but tablets work differently,” she said. “I’m hoping that the tablets will lend to boosting their creativity, whether its creative writing, journaling or dealing with digital graphics. It’s my hope to be able to tie in the tablets with our program so we don’t have to sit with the computer, whether the kids are outside or in larger classrooms.”

ConnectHome is just one initiative aimed at trying to bridge the gap. Last week, on the federal level, members of the Federal Communications Commission voted on repurposing a roughly $2 billion annual phone subsidy program, called Lifeline, to include subsidies for broadband services in low-income homes. The program, first introduced in 1985 to bring phone services to low-income families has drawn strong criticism from some lawmakers who say it has been wasteful and abused.

But advocacy groups have backed the FCC plan, saying it will be important in preventing students from falling further behind their peers.

Since the early 90s there’s been a lot of talk about the digital divide — the gap between those with access and those without — and it’s an ongoing challenge. But the homework gap is a growing debate.

Willis, 17, a senior at John Hay High School has an opinion. She believes people take Wi-Fi for granted at home. She has a 4.0 grade-point average, despite not having Internet at home until six months ago, and has received college scholarship offers. She traded in a flip phone for a smartphone a couple of years ago and she catches the RTA to get around. She does much of her homework afterschool, at the library and places like fast food restaurants.

“People with Wi-Fi at home take it for granted,” she said. “It’s not easy getting things done when you’re always worried about time constraints and not having privacy.”


Information from: The Plain Dealer, http://www.cleveland.com

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