Despite spending millions on technology since 2011, there’s still a digital divide in Decatur City Schools because many students don’t have access to high-speed internet service when they leave the school building, the district’s technology coordinator said.
Lack of home internet is an issue, said Decatur City Schools supervisor of technology Emily Elam, "particularly for our low-income students.”
School officials define the digital divide as the gap between students who have access to computer technology and those who don't.
Decatur City Schools has been a state leader in making sure students have access to computers. This year the district spent almost $500,000 to put Chromebooks in the hands of every fourth- and fifth-grade student and added interactive touchscreen panels in classrooms.
When many of the students leave school, however, they don’t have access to high-speed internet to use the devices for homework or projects.
Miguel Juan Tomas, a student at Oak Park Middle School, is one of those students, so he goes to the Decatur Public Library to do his homework.
Other students go to the parking lots of their schools or stand under trees on school campuses, when weather permits, to access the internet.
“This is what I have to do,” Tomas said Wednesday as he finished a school project in the public library.
Director Sherry Sakovich said a significant part of the library’s traffic after school is students.
“Some are checking out books, but the majority is using our Wi-Fi service,” she said.
Access to this service will decline in January because the library is cutting its hours.
Education Superhighway, a nonprofit group focused on making sure public schools have access to the internet by 2020, issued a report earlier this year showing that school districts since 2013 have closed the gap for sufficient internet access in schools.
But this will not eliminate the digital divide that exists when students leave school, the report stated.
Decatur has looked for ways to give students 24-hour Wi-Fi access. In 2016, the school system had planned to pilot a program that would turn school buses into moving internet hubs, but this would have meant leaving unsecured buses parked throughout the city, so the pilot didn’t come to fruition.
The plan was the recommendation of an 11-member digital conversion committee after some members of the group visited Piedmont City, a rural school district with about 1,240 students that provides laptops for every student in grades four through 12 and uses a combination of methods to make sure all have internet access.
The school system and city officials used $896,000 in federal E-rate money to establish what they call a “wireless mesh.”
All the students inside the Piedmont city limits receive free internet that is paid for with school and city revenue. For those outside the city limits, city and school leaders negotiated a deal with an internet provider that charges them $15 per month for access to high-speed broadband.
Decatur officials have talked about becoming a Wi-Fi city, but cost has kept the plan from moving forward.
About 10 months after backing away from using buses as Wi-Fi hubs, Decatur City Schools spent $13,000 to experiment with a device called Kajeet. Students at Banks-Caddell Elementary, Somerville Road Elementary and Oak Park Middle carried home the devices, which gave them their own Wi-Fi hot spots.
Students said the devices were life-changing because in many cases they didn’t have transportation to get to the public library or to make it to school for early-morning and after-school programs.
Decatur City Schools still has about 60 of the devices, which students are allowed to check out “a day or two at a time,” Elam said.
She said the monthly service plan is about $25 for each device, and Decatur City Schools could use about 800 more of them.
“We really need to find a way to provide internet at home for our students who don’t have it,” Elam said.