When Symyra Prescott needed to trim her household budget, she dropped her Internet service. So she was delighted when her daughter’s school, Statesville Road Elementary, offered the chance to buy a netbook and get a year’s broadband Internet access for $150.
Prescott and her daughter, second-grader Syah, are part of the first wave of families tapping into technology through Project LIFT, a five-year, $55 million quest to boost academic achievement in nine West Charlotte schools. The computer and Wi-Fi package would normally cost $1,250, but the effort is subsidized by Project LIFT (for Leadership and Investment for Transformation) and Microsoft’s “Shape the Future” program.
Eighty-three families bought the packages in December. LIFT leaders hope to sell about 400 more starting this month. And Microsoft is using the LIFT project, along with a similar effort in Seattle, as models for a national push to get Internet access to 1 million low-income families.
“We live in a 21st-century world where everything is digitally connected,” said Project LIFT Zone Superintendent Denise Watts. “Our families must be connected as well.”
Project LIFT, a partnership between Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and private donors, aims to reverse years of academic struggle at West Charlotte High and the eight schools feeding into it. During the rollout this school year, most of the focus has been on “time and talent,” such as teacher recruiting bonuses, summer learning programs and year-round school.
The digital access program supports two other LIFT goals: getting better technology into the hands of families and encouraging family engagement with education. The package includes an M&A Technology computer, child-safe broadband access provided by Kajeet, Microsoft software and other educational tools. Just as important: Parents are trained in how to use their new devices to stay in touch with schools, bolster their kids’ academic progress and build their own workforce skills.
Prescott, who works in a program that supports people with disabilities, supports those aims.
“I think if parents get involved, they can do a lot of good things,” she said. “But parents have to get involved.”
Project LIFT also is providing laptop computers to elementary students through the One Laptop Per Child program. The low-cost laptops are designed for kids, with small keyboards and sturdy frames. They’re staying at school for now but will eventually go home with students.
Almost 90 percent of the 7,000 students in Project LIFT schools come from homes where income is low enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies.
Project LIFT hasn’t done surveys on how many have computers and Internet access at home, but national studies indicate the “digital divide” is a barrier for low-income families, said Denada Jackson, a community engagement coordinator for Project LIFT. And when philanthropists began charting their program, they talked to parents and students in the west Charlotte corridor who told them they needed access to up-to-date technology.
Some families said they couldn’t afford the $150 purchase just before Christmas, Jackson said. Ultimately, LIFT’s goals call for 75 percent of families to participate in the digital inclusion effort.
The problem of digital access among the poor is also a concern nationally. In part to address the problem, the Federal Communications Commission is proposing a super Wi-Fi network across the nation. Consumer advocates say such a system would benefit the poor.
More than gadgets
Alison Harris, principal of Ranson Middle School, said most of her families have some kind of Internet access, even if it’s just a smartphone. But she said most adults need help staying up to speed about how to make sure students are using technology safely and wisely.
“We can increase access to technology,” she said, “but with it comes responsibility.”
Ranson invited parents to school on Wednesday to see digital learning in action. Artis Blackmon and Tim Jones were among the parents who followed math/science facilitator Romain Bertrand from class to class. In the computer lab, seventh-graders who had mastered math skills moved ahead by answering Compass Learning problems, with their results immediately available to teachers. In another classroom, students used the ShowMe app on iPads to create videos explaining how they solved math problems.
Blackmon and Jones both said they have access to the technology at home. What they found helpful, they said, was the update on how it’s used to teach math and other subjects.
“The technology they’re using is awesome,” Jones said.
“Everything they do, they want to do on the computer,” Blackmon said. Watching the iPad demonstration, he marveled at how old it makes him feel.
“We were counting on our fingers and toes,” he joked.
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