Nov 07 2019

Q&A: Kim Buryanek on Bringing Digital Equity into Classrooms

A school district administrator weighs in on how to ensure all students have access to reliable, high-speed internet outside of school — and why it matters that they do.

School districts can’t just invest in laptops, mobile devices and other hardware, then call it a day. To make the best use of the technology, and to try to give every student a comparable digital learning experience, teachers need professional development, says Kim Buryanek, associate superintendent of Sioux City Community School District in Iowa. The training, she says, can inspire teachers to adopt more engaging teaching styles.

Buryanek recently talked with EdTech about how her district is tackling the challenge of digital equity one teacher and one mobile hotspot at a time.

EDTECH: What challenges related to digital equity are you facing in your district?

Buryanek: We have the characteristics of an urban setting. We have a divide, whether it’s a socioeconomic divide or an opportunity divide. It’s a digital divide too. We have almost 15,000 students, and about 68 percent of them qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We have an 18 percent English-language learner population.

Our elementary schools are almost one-to-one, with a 1-to-2 ratio of devices to students. Elementary students don’t take devices home with them because we don’t see the educational need. We have been doing one-to-one in high schools for nine years, and last year we went one-to-one for grades six through 12. Those students can take their laptops home, but when they get home there’s a divide in connectivity.

Asking the right question about access was our first hurdle. We asked, “Do you have connectivity at home?” Over 80 percent said yes. But when we drilled down and asked what that meant, we learned some homes have Wi-Fi and others have internet access on their phones. So, we asked better questions to understand what connectivity looked like at home. We suspect the percentage who have robust access is below 70 percent.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out the creative ways educators and tech leaders are working to boost digital equity.

EDTECH: How are you solving the digital-equity problem?

Buryanek: We keep our schools open longer. We have evening and Saturday school so kids can come and connect to our wireless network. We also have robust wireless connections in our 11 elementary schools. We are looking into opening up the elementary buildings after hours in the neighborhoods where there is high poverty and where we suspect students have less connectivity in their homes.We have talked to local businesses that have Wi-Fi, and they are willing to let our kids come in and use the network even if they are not customers. Our next step is to order more hotspots. We have about 20 in our high school libraries that students can check out. We will purchase more and put them in community spaces in trailer parks. We’ve also put hotspots in our buses, so kids can ride the bus to and from school and have access. And as they travel to ballgames and activities after school, they can use the Wi-Fi so they are not getting home late and still have homework to do after games.

We asked better questions to understand what connectivity looked like at home. We suspect the percentage who have robust access is below 70 percent.”

Kim Buryanek Associate Superintendent of Sioux City Community School District.

EDTECH: What's next on your digital-equity roadmap?

Buryanek: I want this experience for every student in every classroom. We want to make sure our schools that serve low-income students have teams that come to this training — and they do.

Last summer, we added a mentoring component so some of our Future Ready teams can mentor teams in other buildings who are interested in replicating what they’ve done. We are trying to grow this by leaning on teachers as the experts.

EDTECH: What benefits have you seen from your efforts?

Buryanek: With the Future Ready program, there’s excitement and innovation. Teachers have been given time to reimagine instruction. It’s more engaging and relevant for our students. Our Future Ready teams say there’s a difference in student achievement. There’s increased attendance and a decrease in behavioral problems in high schools.

EDTECH: Do you have any tips or advice to other schools and districts on bridging the digital divide?

Buryanek: Digital access and opportunity are important for everyone. You just have to make sure you are not leaving anyone out. We have 1,000 teachers and want to impact every classroom. Take one step at a time, and as you move forward, you eventually can see the progress that you make.

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