Computers and mobile devices are turning into a staple school supply for kids in the Bay Area. The new requirement for all Los Altos High School students to bring a laptop or Chromebook to school every day indicates schools here in Mountain View are no exception.
But there are growing concerns that students from low-income families are going to get left behind because of internet access. As assignments require students to work on them online, and turn homework in online, internet access is becoming more and more of an essential to academic success.
Last year, the Pew Research Center published a survey of over 2,400 teachers that looked into how internet access affects education. The survey showed that 92 percent of teachers say the internet has a "major impact" on students' ability to access content, resources and materials for teaching. But only 18 percent of the teachers said all or almost all of their students have access to the digital tools they need at home.
Poor internet access disproportionately affects low-income and minority families as well. According to a 2013 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, only 53 percent of households with an income under $40,000 have access to broadband internet, compared with 92 percent for households with an income over $80,000. The report also showed that 52 percent of Latino families have access to broadband internet, compared with 81 percent of white families.
The Mountain View Whisman School District has taken significant steps to bring more digital devices into the classroom to bridge the digital divide. Superintendent Craig Goldman said the district is working toward a one-to-one ratio of digital devices to students for fourth through eighth grade.
"We're going to have that at our middle schools this year," Goldman said.
But outside of the classroom is another story. Goldman said that 44 percent of the student in the district are socioeconomically disadvantaged, and a significant portion of the kids do not have access to internet at home. He said students are not expected to complete assignments that require internet use outside of school.
Internet access may be even more pressing for students in the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District, where half the student population is expected to have their own device to take home and work on assignments. Galen Rosenberg, assistant principal at Los Altos High School, said the "bring your own device" policy will, in some ways, even the playing field for low-income families. Any student at the school who doesn't have a laptop or comparable device will be given a Chromebook free of charge to use for class activities for the school year. Rosenberg said that still doesn't solve the inequalities at home regarding internet access.
Superintendent Barry Groves said the school district will be taking the "no child left offline" approach, and made significant upgrades to the campus-wide WiFi services this year. He said there's also a few off-campus alternatives for kids who don't have internet access at home, and that a lot of students take advantage of free WiFi hotspots at libraries and places like Starbucks.
"We're lucky to be in Mountain View, which offers some access throughout the community," Groves said.
Goldman and Groves mentioned there is another option -- an inexpensive internet option by Comcast exclusively for low-income families.
The program is called Internet Essentials, and started in May 2011. Comcast spokesman Bryan Byrd said the goal of the program is to provide low-cost broadband service to families, and bring "digital literacy" to families who aren't up to speed on today's technology.
Byrd said Comcast did an internal survey to find out why a significant segment of the population still doesn't have an internet connection at home. The results indicated that there were three problems: families don't have a computer in the first place, the monthly costs are prohibitively high, and confusion over what the internet is and how it works.
"The program is designed to address all three," Byrd said.
The cost of the broadband service per month is just shy of $10, and families can also opt to buy a $150 computer if they need one. The program also includes digital literacy training, including in-person lessons, to get families accustomed to what the internet is and how to use it.
Eligibility is dependent on whether a child in the family is eligible for the free or reduced lunch program at school, and will last as long as that child remains in school. Byrd said using the free and reduced lunch programs as a benchmark for eligibility avoids any confusion over who qualifies by using a state-wide metric.
He said because of the eligibility requirements, Comcast reached out to school districts in particular to try to get the word out about the program. He said the company has also contacted community organizations, and passed out fliers with information on the program.
As of Aug. 4, a total of 350,000 families across the country have opted into the program, and 46,273 of them are here in California. Byrd said they've received lots of stories from people who used to have to sit in a McDonald's and use the restaurant's free WiFi to finish assignments because the library would close too early. Now they have the option to do their homework at home.