How Community Coalitions Are Bridging the Digital Divide - Digital Promise

How Community Coalitions Are Bridging the Digital Divide

Two middle school girls and a middle school boy in hallway with a laptop

August 25, 2020 | By

Across the country, local networks known as Education Innovation Clusters (EdClusters) are bringing together partners and resources to meet urgent needs and envision a new future for teaching and learning. Many of these efforts are rooted in long-standing partnerships across sectors and institutions.

As COVID-19 disrupted the lives of students, educators, and families earlier this year, EdClusters sprang into action, leveraging their capacity and reach in ways their networks were uniquely ready to do. Their collective efforts are meeting a range of needs—from internet access to devices to social-emotional supports. As schools prepare for uncertain and complex reopenings, we turn to Kansas City and Rhode Island for powerful examples of community in action.

Tackling the Digital Divide with Device Deployment in Kansas City

When schools closed in mid-March, Kansas City was confronted by the region’s deep digital divide. LEANLAB Education has long cultivated a network of educators, policymakers, funders, researchers, and entrepreneurs across the region. Witnessing how many students lacked access to the most basic components of online learning—devices and internet access—LEANLAB and their partners across the metro region took immediate action.

LEANLAB founder Katie Boody explained, “We recognized that with school systems facing tough decisions about building closures, many families without internet access would be disproportionately impacted—teachers wouldn’t be able to extend distance learning activities fairly, nor conduct welfare check-ins with all families.”

LEANLAB surveyed schools and families across 22 school districts, including 17 charter schools, representing more than 60,000 students; the survey revealed more than 2,500 students without devices and 12,757 students without internet connectivity. In addition to food distribution and social-emotional support for students, families indicated device and connectivity disparities as a critical need as schools shift to digital learning.

In response to the urgent need, LEANLAB worked with local philanthropy and the SchoolSmartKC coalition to fund and disburse emergency technology relief for the region’s most vulnerable students and families. By May, they had deployed more than $1.5 million in funds to provide 1,528 laptops, tablets, and devices, as well as 869 hotspots for local students. In addition, LEANLAB worked in partnership with school leaders to develop a bilingual survey tool to assess families’ needs, provide procurement research, and conduct collective price negotiation with vendors to help smaller schools achieve a fair price per student.

It’s important that we all realize this is a temporary solution to a systemic problem. There’s still a greater need for significant infrastructure investment.
Rohan Pidaparti
Manager of Innovation Programs for LEANLAB

Partners across the network stepped up to support connectivity efforts. The Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion, for instance, coordinated the efforts of local organizations, including the public library system, transportation authorities, nonprofits, and private industry, to provide emergency connectivity and technology to students and families in need. Connecting for Good secured donations of devices and hotspots from local businesses and government agencies, and distributed to families with students. The Kansas City Public Library system made open-access WiFi available 24 hours a day in the parking lots of all branch locations. Kansas City Public Schools and Student Transportation of America placed WiFi-equipped school buses at library locations throughout the city in areas that were identified as “digital deserts.”

LEANLAB released a series of recommendations as part of a new report on the impact of distance learning on teachers and the immediate technology needs of schools. By the end of the spring, they had addressed some of the immediate learning needs for the region’s most marginalized students and families. A resolution was recently approved by the city council that would develop “public-private partnerships to effectuate digital equity for residents, students and small businesses in Kansas City.” But LEANLAB knows that much work remains to be done. “It’s important that we all realize this is a temporary solution to a systemic problem,” explains Rohan Pidaparti, manager of innovation programs for LEANLAB. “There’s still a greater need for significant infrastructure investment.”

Supporting Families with Statewide Helplines in Rhode Island

In Rhode Island, the EduvateRI coalition has long cultivated a network of educators, policymakers, researchers, and community organizations across the state. Initially launched by a collaboration between the Highlander Institute and the governor’s Office of Innovation, the network was poised to respond quickly to the needs of educators, learners, and families across the state when the COVID-19 crisis hit.

As districts shifted to digital learning in the spring, schools strived to ensure teaching and learning continued. Teachers needed more training and assistance to develop remote-friendly lessons, and students and families struggled to access the round-the-clock support they needed.

Even the strongest distance learning plans face implementation hurdles, and it is collaborative, cross-district, cross-sector partnerships like these that will ensure we meet the challenges of distance learning head on.
Dana Borrelli-Murray
Executive Director, Highlander Institute

Immediately, the Highlander Institute created a teacher distance learning helpline that has received hundreds of calls. Highlander has supported educators across the state in implementing personalized and blended learning for years, but it soon became apparent that parents also needed support to help them sort through the “information noise” and connect them with solutions. Within days, the governor’s Office of Innovation worked with Highlander and their networks to create a parent version of the helpline.

Dana Borrelli-Murray, Highlander Institute’s executive director, explains, “Even the strongest distance learning plans face implementation hurdles, and it is collaborative, cross-district, cross-sector partnerships like these that will ensure we meet the challenges of distance learning head on.”

It truly has been a collaborative approach. Volunteers for the hotline come from all over the network, including 20 librarians from municipal and community libraries, Highlander’s network of Fuse Fellows, and members of the Rhode Island Parent Information Network (RIPIN), who help parents answer special education-related questions. The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) and Department of Human Services repurposed state contracts to provide interpretation services in more than 200 languages. The state’s Commerce Corporation leveraged technology for small businesses to help parents access free tech support from RightClick. And a dedicated staff member from RIDE helps answer questions that are more regulatory or legal in nature.

Fairchild notes, “A colleague recently told me that during a crisis is when innovative efforts can truly take hold—but only if they have been well-seeded prior. The RI Parent Distance Learning Helpline is a perfect example of this—and of the networked approach to supporting education for all our students.”

Collectively and individually, the work of these local education communities proves the value of network-building and offers inspiring models for how other regions can deploy these kinds of partnerships in support of learners and communities amid ongoing crises.

For more community insights, read how the Remake Learning Network and its partners in Pittsburgh have rallied amid COVID-19, and stay tuned for more on Tucson and the San Francisco Bay Area.

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