Phoenix schools still look to bridge 'digital divide' for students

Posted 11/9/21

Internet access has become the new paper and pencil for students, but for students who can’t afford a connection or Wi-Fi at home it results in an educational disadvantage, or better known as a …

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Phoenix schools still look to bridge 'digital divide' for students


Internet access has become the new paper and pencil for students, but for students who can’t afford a connection or Wi-Fi at home it results in an educational disadvantage, or better known as a “digital divide.”

Digital platforms continue to dominate curriculum currently used in schools and the education system has become dependent on the internet. This includes Wi-Fi access not only at school but also in the home.

“The internet was the medium, the utility per say, to allow us to teach virtually and we just didn’t have it. So, what did we need to do? And that’s really where the digital divide project was born,” said Victoria Farrar, Cartwright Elementary School District chief financial officer.

Cartwright Elementary School District is one of the first Arizona school districts to recognize the dilemma and take action to solve it.

Madison Elementary School District, located in Phoenix, addressed the problem by providing students in need of internet access with Chromebooks with internet filtering policies, ensuring access to the Madison Virtual Academy, K-1-2 Remote Learning at-home virtual learning programs, said Nicole Rodriguez, Madison School District Director of Community Relations and Marketing.

“Through the generous bond approval of our voters, the district has been able to work to close the digital divide by purchasing enough Chromebooks for every student. Improvement could be made by ensuring replacement Chromebooks are available when any of our existing devices might be damaged or break down,” said Rodriguez.

The Southwest Cable Communication Association, located in Scottsdale, acted as a bridge extending over the divide. The nonprofit organization assisted Cartwright officials, and ultimately took the first step in mending the disconnect between students without internet connection and their education.

Farrar expressed that though she cannot predict the future, she feels confident that for-profit companies such as T-Mobile and Verizon are interested in collaborating without charging an arm and a leg to do so to provide internet access to students.

Susan Smith, executive director of Southwest Cable Communications, shares similar confidence that larger companies will partner with the project, broadening the community that can benefit from it.

“Public dollars are being used not to compete with bigger companies, but to expand the opportunities,” Smith said.

The public dollars in question are capital funds that are used for technology, buses, textbooks, new curriculum, furniture, and other equipment.

“Fortunately, the current administration in Washington, D.C., and the previous administration both provide funding to mitigate the effects not just with the health problems of Covid-19 but also the educational issues we’ve experienced with Covid-19,” Farrar said.

Federal relief funds are the key component of affording the Wi-Fi-Canopy project, however this funding is not permanent.

Federal funds are needed for schools to offer internet to students. The operational costs must be budgeted into the district’s financial plans. In Arizona schools that budget is not big.

As of 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau ranked Arizona 49th in the nation in terms of its annual per-pupil spending at about $5,000 less per student than the average amount spent per student annually in other schools in the U.S. Arizona schools have suffered lack of funding for over a decade, beginning in 2009. Without proper funding students will be deprived of new educational tools and technological upgrades.

“I can tell you for every dollar we get in capital funding, since it is not indexed for inflation… and it is the same formula that was implemented in 1980… when you think about how much less a dollar is worth now then it was in 1980, it’s only got 59 cents worth of buying power,” Farrar

While funding remains a concern, the Wi-Fi-Canopy project is projected to be successful and will remain in effect even when funding expires. Farrar expressed that she would not be surprised if the Wi-Fi-Canopy expands statewide and nationwide, making Arizona a pioneer in the solution for the digital divide.

“It’s not a one size fits all, and it’s not something that there is only one way to do it. That’s what has been really beautiful about this project because we have really been able to see how we can get it done. We know what we need, the different varieties and options of how we get it done have just been amazing,” Farrar said.


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