Julie Randles
No internet at home? Tap into your community to narrow the digital divide

Just four years ago, the Rowan-Salisbury School System in Salisbury, North Carolina, put devices in the hands of 19,500 K-12 students. Learners in grades 3-12 brought the devices home every day. Almost immediately, an issue arose.

Despite every student having a device, a digital divide still existed.

Sixty-five percent of Rowan-Salisbury students receive free and reduced-price lunch, thanks in part to the textile industry — which once employed much of the community — moving overseas. When these students went home, poverty existed and access to the internet often didn’t.

In an effort to address the digital divide, the school system reached out to the community for solutions, said Andrew Smith, the district’s chief strategy officer. The core question: How do we make internet access available outside of school so students can use their devices to study, do research and complete homework?

“We said ‘We can’t tackle this alone, we need community partners,’” Smith said. The district knew that its 1:1 computing initiative would go a long way toward improving literacy — but not until all students had connectivity even after they stepped off the school bus.

The partnerships and solutions took many forms, until they eventually found 75 Wi-Fi hotspots in both urban and rural areas of the community. Now the goal is to establish 25 more for a total of 100.

Here’s how Rowan-Salisbury Schools attacked the problem:

The literacy summits. Over the past three years, business, community and church leaders were invited to a summit where the district laid out its literacy plan, explained its 1:1 initiative and asked for help. Nearly 500 people have attended the meetings. District representatives explained how the digital divide impacts student achievement and asked those in attendance to help them address the access issues many students face at home.

The challenge. Superintendent Lynn Moody challenged those who operated businesses in the community to provide students with free internet access so they could stop by and do their homework. In return, the district would spotlight the businesses on its website and provide window clings identifying the locations as Wi-Fi hotspots for area students.

The churches. With a couple solutions in place for urban students, the district turned to rural areas where students faced geographical internet poverty. The district approached faith-based groups and asked them to consider opening church doors to students after school.

Simultaneously, the district contacted an internet provider and a cable provider to collaborate on providing connectivity for the rural church buildings. Churches were asked to provide access to students two or three hours a week. It didn’t take long for some to agree to offer an hour or so every day. In some cases, having the students on site has provided churches with opportunities for new ministries and provide meals.

The libraries. The district adjusted library hours at schools, keeping them open later in the day so kids could do homework after school.

The teachers. Teachers were trained to deal with classrooms where only half the students had internet access at home. Educators were asked to evaluate the efficacy of the homework they assigned to ensure it was valuable. They also learned about apps students could use at home that don’t require connectivity, and they were encouraged to have students download materials at school so they could work offline at home.

The district. District officials asked vendors to offer digital resources that function offline. Whether a learning management system, a literacy program or a general digital content resource, vendors were told, “If you don’t have an offline function, we don’t want to talk to you.”  

The buses. A wildly successful summer food program led to another innovative solution. This summer, the district’s nutrition department served 85,000 meals to students out of remodeled school buses parked throughout the community, which got Smith thinking. What if we fitted buses with a wireless hotspot and served dinner from the buses during the school year? That plan is in the works and the district now has four “Yum Yum” buses.   

The mobile hotspots. Thanks to a generous donation and partnership with Community in Schools, the district was able to purchase 300 wireless routers that act as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, along with monthly data plans. The majority of the 300 devices are given to the most impoverished students throughout the district for nightly use. A smaller subset of devices were given to each media center to be loaned to any student who may need them for sporadic usage.

“Some of the most simple solutions that you can implement tomorrow don’t take any money at all,” Smith said. “There’s no one solution that solves all of the problems. It becomes a mix of all solutions.”

This is an updated version of an article published on the ISTE Blog on July 27, 2015.

Julie Phillips Randles is a freelance writer and editor with 30 years of experience writing about education policy, leadership, curriculum and edtech.