What Happens When Kids Don't Have Internet at Home?

Roughly half of low-income families nationwide lack access to the web in their houses.

KENT, Wash.—As students stream off the school buses here, the typical end-of-day scene unfolds with a twist.

Thrown over the kids' shoulders are sleek black laptop bags with the name of their district emblazoned on them.

As part of an effort to bridge the so-called digital divide—the gap between rich and poor when it comes to access to technology—the Kent School District has for six years given every student a laptop, beginning in seventh grade.

But some of these students don’t need to carry the bags home—because they can’t get online there. It’s a problem that districts are increasingly facing as they turn to technology to revolutionize their teaching.

In Kent, about 9 percent of students, or roughly 2,500 kids, can’t access the Internet once they go home, district surveys show. Many of them are the poorest students, the very ones district officials believe would benefit from more exposure to technology to help them catch up to their more advantaged peers.

“If you do this well, in the process what you’re going to do is widen that gap, not close it,” said Thuan Nguyen, Kent School District’s assistant superintendent.

With the laptops, the district has shifted its instruction away from standard approaches to homework, such as reading textbooks or completing worksheets, Nguyen said. “Once you’ve converted the curriculum, the material, it’s more project-based learning. You kind of need the Internet for all those pieces to work well. If you’re not able to provide that last level of connectivity, you’ve now widened the gap in terms of what kids can do, not to mention the expectation around that.”

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to increase funding for the federal e-rate program, which provides money for school districts to access the Internet, by $1.5 billion for a total of $3.9 billion annually. It's unlikely, however, that the funding will help districts expand access outside of school walls.

Roughly half of low-income families nationwide lack Internet service. Kent, a city between Seattle and Tacoma of 124,000 people and whose 27,000-student district covers parts of six other towns and some rural areas, clearly is ahead of the curve in trying to address this problem of equity; most recently, it installed Wi-Fi hotspots at three community centers in public housing. But these efforts have been fraught with difficulties, showing how hard it may be for other districts to close the digital divide.

“The theory is that if we can create not just a digital school district but a digital community, then we can create the infrastructure to eliminate the equity issue in terms of access—to content and knowledge and information,” said Edward Lee Vargas, the former superintendent for Kent who recently went to the White House to argue that schools' federal technology dollars should be permitted to go toward funding out-of-school Internet connections for low-income kids.

“It becomes a civil rights issue,” said Vargas, who led the district for five years until last month. “They’re being denied equal access to knowledge and information that are part of education in the 21st century.”

As the Obama administration pushes schools to modernize their technology, Kent stands out for its innovations and offers lessons about what challenges other districts may face. Besides its laptop program and wireless Internet access at every school, the district has upgraded its broadband speed to two gigabits—ahead of the Obama administration’s goals for schools to have one gigabit per second by 2017.

But Kent isn’t a wealthy district. Last year, 52 percent of students qualified for free and reduced lunch, and many are new immigrants. Forty percent speak a language other than English at home, district officials said, while 18 percent are enrolled in bilingual instruction. Perhaps because of the influence of the tech industry in the Seattle area nearby, however, voters have embraced the district’s efforts to bolster its technology. Kent has had a dedicated technology levy since 2000. And voters have stuck with it, renewing it each time, most recently to expand a one-to-one program into the elementary schools, meaning each child in kindergarten through sixth grade will also have access to a computer.

To keep pace with the technology being introduced into the classroom, the school district has pushed to bring Internet access to parts of the community where it is needed.

* * *

On a Wednesday night in October in the Birch Creek community center, high school and middle school students came to shoot hoops, go to Girl Scout meetings, and do their online homework assignments.

A dozen students clustered around laptops set up on heavy-duty folding tables near an Internet kiosk the school district had installed two years earlier. The kiosk resembles an ATM and includes a wireless Internet hotspot, as well as a built-in computer with a touch screen that any community member can use to access news on the district and that parents can use to access a district program called Skyward, which provides grades and attendance records for kids.

Muhsin Shamdeen,  a 12-year-old seventh grader and aspiring professional skateboarder, was working on a letter to President Barack Obama about Christopher Columbus, with help from a community center staffer.

Using an online version of SparkNotes (her teacher had suggested consulting the guide), Ayan Mohamed, a 15-year-old sophomore immigrant from Somalia, sat working on an end-of-quarter essay.

In class the computer helps when there’s something confusing, Mohamed said, pointing to a page she had pulled up explaining some research relevant to an essay she was working on. “You can look it up right there," she noted. The paper happened to be about technology’s impacts and disappointments as portrayed by the books they’d read for the course.

The kiosks, in theory, won't cost the district any money in the long run. They sold for $7,000 upfront, but the district hopes to recover the money by income from business partners who’ll get to advertise on them. And they’re located in places already wired for the Internet, so there's no ongoing expense for the district.

The kiosk program is novel, but it has a couple wrinkles. For example, while the kiosk was working that evening, it had just been put back online for the first time in two weeks. Before then, he system had gone down, likely after it was unplugged during a cleaning. Still, It turned out the outage hadn’t been much of an impediment because Kent Youth and Family Services, which runs programs for students at the Birch Creek community center, had installed a separate Wi-Fi network there a year and a half ago. (The other two community centers had Wi-Fi set up two months ago.)

Of course, overlap isn’t a terrible issue to have when it comes to fickle Wi-Fi networks—but it’s a situation the district’s technology chief was wholly unaware of, calling it "good feedback," when he learned about it from me. The kiosk is, after all, a pilot for the district that's designed to iron out the kinks before being put up all around town.

Still, if the idea is to reach kids who don’t have access after school hours, students point to another challenge: Unlike their peers in, say, public housing, the kids without Internet access at home generally live scattered across the district.

“Until we find a way to provide free Internet access, there’s always going to be some measure of the population left behind; we have a long way to go to solving this problem,” said Christopher Mitchell, who directs a Minneapolis-based a Minneapolis-based initiative that advocates for community-based broadband networks.

Mitchell also called a Comcast program that offers low-income families across the country inexpensive—though highly inefficient—Internet access “an incredibly self-serving approach to get better publicity while doing the bare minimum." The program is exceptionally popular in Kent—in part because the district has been very effective at promoting it.

All Kent schools provide Wi-Fi, which is accessible from the parking lot. Early in the laptop program, Nguyen, the assistant superintendent, recalled showing up to schools late or early to see cars parked, presumably so families could get online before and after school. Inside, students would hover over their laptops, their faces glowing.

But as community access to the Internet has expanded, that's happening less.

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.