Mar 31 2021

Equal Access to Computers Moves Entire Casa Blanca School Community

The pandemic quest to help students learn from home transforms the digital landscape of a rural Arizona reservation.

As soon as the boxes of laptops arrived at the homes of Casa Blanca Community School students, the phone calls to school leaders began.

“Now what do we do?”

“How do we plug it in?”

“Where is the ‘on’ button?”

These were some of the questions that parents and grandparents asked Casa Blanca school leaders when the pandemic hit last year and students began to attend school from home. As they removed the laptops from boxes and figured out how to turn them on, the school community took the first of many steps toward becoming a tech-endowed dynamo in distance learning.

That journey started with the ambitious vision of Casa Blanca’s principal, Kim Franklin. She dreamed of securing top-quality devices for the mostly low-income families that attend her rural school inside the Gila River Indian Reservation. Home of the Salt River Pima–Maricopa Indian Community, the reservation is located some 30 miles south of Phoenix. It was a challenge to find the money to place a laptop in every student’s home, but Franklin was determined.

“I really believe very much in the power of learning and the power of education to move communities and societies,” Franklin said. “And I’m very passionate in my belief that when you empower people and give them the tools they need, anything is possible.”

Franklin, 64, grew up in Albuquerque, N.M., and worked as a teacher and assistant principal before her current role. She spent her career with indigenous communities, landing at Gila River in 1995 at a different community school. Franklin first served as principal of the alternative high school in the community before moving over to Casa Blanca, a K-4 school. Some of her former high school students are now parents of children at Casa Blanca, Franklin said.

“I call them my ‘grandstudents,’” she chuckled. “It is so exciting to be able to work with families across the generations.”

Casa Blanca, which has 253 students, met the federal designation for a Title 1 school, meaning the school is eligible for federal financial assistance because a high percentage of its students come from low-income families and are at risk of failing to meet academic standards. And 100 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Additionally, nearly one-quarter of Casa Blanca students have a grandparent or grandparents as their primary caregivers, Franklin said.

From Emergency Teaching to Equal Access

In February 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, Casa Blanca went to full-time distance learning, at first resorting to what Franklin calls “emergency teaching.” Quickly, though, the entire school community — tribal leadership, parents and staff — shifted into planning.

Franklin and her staff cobbled together outdated equipment for her school so they could continue their education. They made do with 10-year-old laptops, 3-year-old tablets and about 20 desktop computers purchased at least five years ago. Most of the devices had been used for testing and little else. A couple of desktops stayed in the school library in case a student needed to look up a topic on the internet.

Then Franklin found that many of her students could only access the internet through a smartphone, marking a wide digital divide. The community committed to ensuring that all students had equal access to the internet. That meant investing in a Wi-Fi hotspot for every Casa Blanca family. If a family had more than one student at the school, they got a second hotspot. The cost for the Wi-Fi build-out — a total of 159 hotspots — would have paid a teacher’s annual salary, Franklin said.

DISCOVER: These 3 online learning tools help boost remote instruction.

Next came the devices. Franklin wanted every student to have a laptop, but in households with more than one Casa Blanca student, she settled for one per family, which meant some students had to alter their time in class.

Even if Casa Blanca had the money, getting enough laptops during the pandemic would have been tough. The sudden shift to distance learning caused a nationwide shortage, with long waiting lists for most manufacturers.

Still, Franklin started pulling together funds to order devices when they became available. Then, she learned about First Book’s Creating Learning Connections initiative that would supply devices and broadband enhancements to schools in need.

Last spring, amid the pandemic-related shift to distance learning, First Book, a nonprofit organization focused on helping remove barriers to learning for children in need, surveyed 1,000 of its members. Respondents estimated that 40 percent of the children they served lacked access to reliable internet service at home, and 37 percent had no functioning device to use for remote learning.

“There were kids who, in so many of the communities that we selected, had no devices or had just a handful of devices similar to Casa Blanca,” said Becki Last, First Book’s chief programmatic officer. “A lot of folks were still doing paper. They were printing out reams of material and dropping it at kids’ doorsteps so that they would have resources. Kids were driving to local churches and libraries to get access to the internet.”

Source: First Book, “First Book Research and Insights: COVID-19 Response Survey Results,” July 2020

In response, First Book partnered with CDW•GIntel and the LEGO Foundation to launch the Creating Learning Connections initiative. The group provided 17,000 devices, 7,500 Lego Education building kits and $200,000 for local broadband enhancements to distribute to schools in need. Of the 128 districts that applied, 50 received the package.

Franklin squeezed in Casa Blanca’s application for the program just before the grant window closed. As one of the 50 selected schools, Casa Blanca received a device for every student, including a handful of adults who take computer courses through the school.

KEEP READING: Computer science education at Aberdeen High propels growth and equity.

The Community-Backed Rollout and Commitment to Tech

The device rollout required even more commitment from across the community, Franklin said. The school itself needed to invest in tech support and professional development. Now teaching via Microsoft Teams, some staff members were more comfortable with technology than others, she said. Most put in long hours and hard work to move from in-class to distance learning.

The Gila River Indian Community Tribal Education Department stepped up to build out a high-capacity broadband network across the community’s seven districts. That project is still in process, but Franklin has already seen so much positive change.

According to Franklin, Casa Blanca students got more than a device to do school. “They got computers with serious processing capacity,” she said.

Her students have Dynabook laptops with Intel Core i5 8th Generation processors and solid-state hard drives for robust virtual learning. They allow for sophisticated security features and smoother video livestreams that are less likely to get hung up and aggravate students, Franklin said. Most important, the devices are equipped with the latest sophisticated tools and features that the students’ tech-savvy peers are using.

“The kids now have real world apps,” Franklin said. “You have something that does word processing. You have something that does a spreadsheet. You have something that looks like a PowerPoint presentation. You have something that you can film videos on. You have something that you can watch videos on. You have a place that you can go and research something.”

However, what excited Franklin most is watching some of her students and parents grow more engaged as students attend school from a distance. She has heard parents describe helping their children with their math homework.

“Holy cow, it’s like talking to a teacher,” said Franklin, an educator for 40-plus years. Parents now have “a level of understanding about the curriculum that has never been there before.”

Planning for a Return to Normal

Enrollment in kindergarten dipped a bit last year, which Franklin suspects is because parents held little ones back rather than launch them into distance learning. For the upcoming school year, as many of those late-coming kindergartners start school and they add on a fifth grade, she expects a surplus of new students.

Now Franklin has a new goal: to equip each student with TWO devices: one at home and one to keep at school. Once in-person learning resumes, the principal figured, it’s a heavy burden for a 7-year-old to carry a laptop from school to home and back again.

Even as life and school return to “normal” after the pandemic, technology has taken hold for good in the Gila River landscape, Franklin said.

“I am a real believer in the power of what technology can do in the world of education, because it can change the way school is,” she said. “That’s what I really see it doing next year.”

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