Students from Mississippi’s Title I schools reap benefits from technology upgrades, thanks to state and federal funds.

Jun 23 2021

Pandemic Aid Helps Narrow Mississippi’s Digital Divide

Students from Mississippi’s Title I schools reap benefits from technology upgrades thanks to state and federal funds.

During Black History Month, Aberdeen High School Principal Dana Bullard invited some former students to speak to her current students at the Mississippi school about their careers. One former student, a young Black man who now works at Netflix in California, emphasized that technology skills are important for virtually every job. A pharmacist may need to program a robot to help sort medicine, he suggested; a truck driver may need to manage an autonomous tractor-trailer.

His personal story resonated with Bullard’s students, who are mostly Black and live in the Aberdeen School District, a small Title I district in the northeastern part of the state. Perhaps more important, his concrete examples helped them understand how the technology skills they are learning now could shape their futures.

“It was so great for him to share with the students that no matter what it is that you want to do, technology is going to be a key to your success,” Bullard says.

Yet Aberdeen has struggled to implement IT upgrades that could support robust distance learning, innovative curricula, online testing and other initiatives that prepare students for success in college and the workforce.

Long-standing funding challenges remain a barrier. According to the Mississippi Department of Education, more than 90 percent of the state’s school districts accept Title I funding, federal aid intended to help students from low-income families meet state academic benchmarks. But this extra funding is not enough.

Last year, as schools pivoted to remote learning, the COVID-19 pandemic thrust the country’s ongoing digital divide into the spotlight. Districts serving students of color and low-income students in Southern states such as Mississippi have long been disproportionately affected with access challenges, according to “Looking Back, Looking Forward: What it will take to permanently close the K–12 digital divide,” an analysis published in January by Common Sense Media, Boston Consulting Group and the Southern Education Foundation.

Connectivity Challenges Title I School Students

Compared with other states, the report says, Mississippi is home to the highest proportion of K–12 students — 50 percent, or 234,000 students — who do not have an adequate internet connection.

Until recently, Bullard’s students were among an estimated 16 million public school students nationwide who were considered digitally disconnected because they lacked reliable high-speed internet or access to a working computing device at the start of the pandemic. That figure decreased to about 12 million, thanks to federal CARES Act funding and other state and local aid. These funds made significant technological upgrades possible for many districts that, like Aberdeen, had struggled with weak Wi-Fi, aging desktop computers and limited opportunities for remote learning before the pandemic.

In Aberdeen, many students had no personal computing devices other than cellphones at home until this school year, Bullard says. Using CARES Act funding, the district started a one-to-one Chromebook program for its 1,063 students.

Source: mdek12.org, “Mississippi Connects: MDE Completes Delivery of Over 325,000 Devices to Districts, Targets Teacher Training,” Nov. 23, 2020

“We have one-to-one, but the students may or may not have internet at their homes, and more than likely, since we’re a Title I school, they do not have it,” Bullard says.

For nearby Columbus Municipal, also a Title I district, a lack of connectivity posed a major problem when schools shut down last year. Hundreds of the district’s students whose families did not have internet access had only pen and paper for remote learning.

With CARES Act funding, Aberdeen and Columbus Municipal purchased hotspots and other solutions for disconnected families. Vicksburg Warren School District, which spans a hilly, rugged area along the Mississippi River, also used federal funding to address its connectivity challenges. It rushed to distribute Wi-Fi hotspots to 120 students in areas where internet access, municipal water and sewer service aren’t widely available, says Wade Grant, educational technology director.

It also helped families living within the AT&T service area apply for income-based subsidies to get internet installed at home so students could log on for classes.

DISCOVER: These four tips will help protect students' take-home devices.

Funding Allows Districts to Make Strategic Upgrades

Funding also allowed Title I districts to make other upgrades that led to meaningful digital transformations. Columbus Municipal directed $2.2 million in CARES aid to expand its one-to-one device program. It purchased 2,653 new HP ProBook x360 G6 EE 2-in-1 laptops for all students in pre-K through eighth grade, as well as learning management system licenses, says J.C. Lawton, director of information systems. Previously, only high school students had individual devices.

Before the pandemic, Columbus Municipal’s network was designed to handle regular daily traffic. However, to handle the coming influx of student devices this fall, the district worked with Cisco to replace switches, a firewall and uninterruptible power supply devices. It also purchased portable Wi-Fi hotspots, outdoor wireless access points and cellular routers for buses for remote learning, Lawton says.

Aberdeen also upgraded bandwidth and wireless arrays and will integrate Promethean interactive whiteboards in classrooms. The changes will enable more students to participate in new programs such as Advanced Placement computer science, as well as a new video production class this fall.

DIVE DEEPER: Opportunity, Growth and Equity Drive Computer Science Education at Aberdeen High.

Budget Wins Lead to IT Upgrades

Vicksburg Warren might be one of the few Title I districts in Mississippi to have a major IT system upgrade before the pandemic. When Grant started about five years ago, the district was inundated with problems stemming from reliance on older desktop equipment and unmanaged switches. He initiated a districtwide network upgrade that relied on federal E-Rate and district funds, a successful bandwidth upgrade request to the state, and a one-to-one Chromebook program at the high school and at a middle school STEM academy.

The superintendent and school board recognized that “employment for tomorrow is going to require our students to be able to use technology in some form or another in just about every field that we can imagine,” Grant says, and they have prioritized budgeting for it over the past several years. The district also saved money by switching from onsite to cloud-based service management, which limits traveling technician contracts.

At the same time, the upgrades enabled older students to start learning Google Classroom well before the pandemic. School shutdowns in March 2020 pushed the district to roll out devices to all 7,300 students and replace older Chromebooks with new ones, using CARES Act funding, Grant says.

Districts Provide Improved Digital Experiences for Students

These district leaders worry that temporary aid is not a sustainable solution for a state whose schools have been historically underfunded. They believe digital equity for Mississippi’s Title I schools will require a concerted effort by local, state and federal leaders that continues even after the COVID-19 crisis ends.

Still, the influx of pandemic aid promises critical improvements for the next school year. For example, when in-person classes resume with 3,500 students logged in at once, Columbus Municipal’s system won’t choke. And when schools fully reopen, all three districts will offer remote learning as an option for students who need flexibility for off-campus vocational training or who are out sick.

READ MORE: Reimagine post-pandemic classrooms for today's learners.

Vicksburg Warren hopes to increase student participation in early college programs off campus and hands-on vocational training.

At Aberdeen, thanks to the infrastructure and device upgrades, classes no longer have to rotate through computer labs to take state tests. The result, Bullard says, is that the high school cut state testing days by half in April, freeing up more time for instruction.

And Bullard hopes to channel some of her students’ creative energy into the technical side of filming live band and theater performances. “If we can get them to learn technology while they’re enjoying their music and art,” she says, “then they will graduate with some great technological skills in broadcasting, journalism or recording arts.”

Timothy Ivy