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A new basic need: Closing digital divide

By Taylor Batten
Editorial Page Editor
Taylor Batten
Taylor Batten is The Observer's editorial page editor.

Concerned about the city’s poorest children, Charlotte leaders gathered last week to talk about how to provide them … broadband?

You’d think advocates would see more pressing needs: shelter, food, clothing. While those are obvious essentials, WiFi, it turns out, is much more than a chance to play Angry Birds.

A high-quality education is the hammer that can break a family’s cycle of poverty. And in today’s 21st century learning environments, Internet access is as crucial as the textbooks and encyclopedias of yesteryear. Kids today are expected to use computers to do their homework, research their projects, type their papers and communicate with their teachers.

But a huge digital divide separates the haves and have-nots, which then widens the achievement gap. Many of us take for granted having Internet access at home. But tens of thousands of children in Mecklenburg County and around the Charlotte region have no connection to the web outside of school. Already wrestling with other pressures lined up against them, these students let schoolwork go undone and inevitably fall further behind their peers. They are more likely to drop out and less likely to find a job as adults.

Heath Morrison, superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, tells the story of a civil rights activist he was talking to whose mother sacrificed greatly to buy him a set of encyclopedias as a child. Those wonderful books fed his hunger for knowledge and broke that family’s generational poverty.

Print encyclopedias are museum pieces now. But “technology can be the great equalizer,” Morrison told a group of leaders from business, nonprofits, government, academia and the faith community on Thursday. “Will we draw a line in the sand and say, ‘In Charlotte, no student will be denied access.’?”

Franny Millen and friends are drawing that line in north Mecklenburg. Franny, now an 8th grader at Bailey Middle School, was talking with her parents a year and a half ago about how not all kids had the access to technology that she did. They decided to do something about it.

They created a nonprofit called E2D, for Eliminate the Digital Divide. It partners with the Ada Jenkins Center, Davidson College and others to provide computers and Internet access to kids who don’t have it at home. Last August, they outfitted all 50 kids at Davidson Elementary School who needed it. The families pay $10 a month to help defray the cost and have some personal buy-in.

Since then, E2D, with the help of Lowe’s, MI-Connection and many others, has put a computer and Internet access into the home of every public school child in Davidson and Cornelius who needed it. Next up: Huntersville.

Joan Viteri is grateful. She is a single mother of three who, as a Spanish teacher at Hough High, hasn’t had a raise in years. She received a computer through E2D that her children use for schoolwork at their Cornelius home.

She knows the problem both as a mother and as a teacher who assigns students work online.

“Students are not going to tell you in front of a class, ‘I can’t do the homework, I don’t have the computer to do it,’” she told me Friday. “They just won’t do the homework.”

She adds: “If we give them that opportunity, we are opening doors for the future.”

This is a fixable problem. Pat Millen, Franny’s father and the head of E2D, estimates $4 million would put a computer in the household of every needy CMS student. That’s not chump change, but it’s also not an astronomical number for such an important challenge.

What can you and your organization do to help?

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tbatten1.
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