Parkland School District in Pennsylvania, like many of the nation’s public school systems, is seeing increases in student poverty rates and English language proficiency — trends that could make any existing digital divides worse. But Parkland school leaders are taking proactive steps to improve digital equity.
Tracy Smith, Parkland’s assistant to the superintendent for operations, spoke with EdTech about the district’s strategies and best practices for improving digital equity and shared her hopes for bringing broadband to every home in the Lehigh Valley region.
EDTECH: What challenges related to digital equity are you facing in your district?
Smith: There needs to be a lot of professional development and a change in mindset from teacher-oriented instruction to empowering students to take more ownership of learning. As a one-to-one district, we need to ensure that essential infrastructure for students is available beyond the walls of their schools. Education now is 24/7. Parents are a critical partner in this. We’ve done surveys, and 3 percent of our students — about 300 kids — don’t have internet access at home.
We also have seen increases in the free- and reduced-price lunch population and the English-language learner population, and we are trying to address our challenges. For example, some staffers say, “How do I teach a class where four students speak a different language?” We’ve experimented with Microsoft Translator, which provides translation on the students’ Chromebooks when the teacher is talking. We’ve played with it, and it’s remarkable. Technology can make a difference, and in this case it’s a good fit.
MORE FROM EDTECH: Learn how mobile apps might help close the “homework gap.”
EDTECH: How are you solving the digital-equity problem?
Smith: For us, the fix is a combination of purchasing Kajeet hotspots and working with EveryoneOn, a nonprofit that partners with service providers to offer low-cost internet for qualifying parents. We also work with our community library to make sure they are a resource.
We have about 75 Kajeet hotspots, and they’re a great solution. Students can have them for about two weeks. If students need something longer term, EveryoneOn is a solution. If that’s not affordable, we work with students, and in some cases we will extend their use of the Kajeet hotspots.
EDTECH: What’s next on your digital-equity roadmap?
Smith: We broke down digital equity into four areas: devices, infrastructure, broadband and skills. We’ve tried to bridge the divide in the skills base of our staff. We added tech mentors in each building prior to the one-to-one rollout. These teachers are given stipends to coach, lead mini-workshops within their buildings and provide instructional support to their peers. They helped develop a competency-based online training program a year prior to each rollout. All our staff went through that to learn how to use our learning management system, Google apps and a formative assessment tool.
We also have to ensure we have a strong infrastructure. This past year, every classroom received a screencasting tool. In a typical classroom, every student has a device and access to cloud-based software. Every teacher has an up-to-date laptop.
We are fortunate that only 3 percent of the families in our district lack home internet, but in some nearby communities that’s true for 20 to 30 percent of families. I believe we are at a crossroads in our area where we can either watch the digital-equity gap get wider or we can join regional efforts to try to close it completely by getting fiber to the home, like in Chattanooga, Tenn. We are part of a regional consortium focused on equity, and digital equity is a big part of our discussions about preparing for 5G. We see this as a collective impact opportunity. We are partnering with other school districts in Lehigh Valley as well as the Chamber of Commerce, businesses and the local hospitals. We’ve convened meetings with a larger group to talk about what we can do.
We are at a crossroads in our area where we can either watch the digital-equity gap get wider or we can join regional efforts to try to close it completely by getting fiber to the home.”
Assistant to the superintendent for operations at the Parkland School District
EDTECH: What benefits have you seen from your efforts?
Smith: Teachers say this whole digital ecosystem has had a transformational effect on their teaching. Students used to say they would write a paper, turn it in and get it back within a week. Now they say, “I go write, and my teacher is giving me feedback on Google apps as I’m writing.” That’s the coolest thing to them. They like the immediacy and instant feedback.
According to metrics like Niche.com, we are the highest performing district in the area. We feel that the strategic use of these resources, coupled with great teachers and strong leadership at the building level as well as a solid curriculum, have helped us build this foundation to where differences in poverty rates among schools don’t matter. They are all rated “A” schools. That doesn’t happen without a real purposeful focus on equity.
EDTECH: Do you have tips or advice to other schools and districts on bridging the digital divide?
Smith: It’s not something a district can do on its own. You work in tandem with the community. Learn from workshops with other school districts, partner with them, and pick their brains on how to tackle this.