West Side school bridges e-learning digital divide

At Morton School of Excellence, as many as 90 percent of families lacked computers or WiFi at home %u2014 until now

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Pascal Sabino/Block Club Chicago

For Janina Davis' two kids, school was the only place they had reliable Internet access. At home, they had no computers and no WiFi. When they had questions about schoolwork and needed to look something up, they had to ask to borrow Davis' phone.

So when the pandemic forced schools to close and switch to remote online classrooms, Davis' family was totally unprepared. She couldn't afford to buy any new technology. But her kids' principal at Morton School Of Excellence stepped in to allow kids to bring the school's devices home.

Were it not for that, Davis said, her kids — who are in second and eighth grade — would be almost totally disconnected.

"I didn't realize it before now since we didn't have a choice. But it helps a lot," Davis said. "And if everyone has it, they can learn more. A lot of work they don't understand or can't do, they can just look it up."

At Morton, as many as 90 percent of families are in the same boat and lack computers or WiFi at home, according to Principal Peggy Burnett-Wise. In predominantly low-income communities of color like Garfield Park, Wise said this lack of access points to a persistent digital divide that explains why some students have lagged behind in the transition to virtual learning, according to recent data from Chicago Public Schools.

"It's about equity. Access is a game changer. It's really an opportunity gap," Wise said. "People talk a lot about an achievement gap… but when they get the opportunity they go for it."

The newly released data from the district measures how many times each week students log on to access schoolwork and complete assignments online. The findings show that students of color, those with special needs, and families experiencing homelessness or in temporary living situations are participating less in online learning.

Nearly 90 percent of white and Asian CPS students logged into virtual classrooms at least once in during the week of May 11, according to the most recent data. By comparison, only 70 percent of Black students and 61 percent of students experiencing homelessness logged in more than once that week.

When it became evident that schools would close in March, Wise and her team began distributing all 130 devices that the school already had, making sure each Morton family had one device.

When CPS offered the school 50 additional Chromebooks and 77 tablets, Wise was able to follow up with families with multiple kids to make sure each child had their own individual device.

Giving students easier access to computers at home plus the needed teaching support for home learning helped boost participation in online lessons, Wise said.

"I was so proud of my parents and my students. Those parents came up, they got those devices and students immediately started logging on," Wise said. "It was just the best feeling in the world to see our students and our parents get that access immediately. Prior to this, the parents and students would be on one phone trying to access video lessons."

Davis received two Chromebooks for her second and eighth graders.

Since Davis hadn't owned a computer before the pandemic, she had to learn how to set up the devices and help her kids with their online assignments and video conference calls. Tech literacy is another barrier she can keep many families from participating in virtual classrooms.

Seeing her kids participate in the virtual classes has been eye-opening for Davis, she said. Each day she sees her kids finding answers to any question instantly on Google, playing educational games and tapping into vast pools of knowledge on the internet. She said she hadn't fully grasped just how big of an advantage other students with access to the internet have always had.

Davis also appreciates that Morton's teachers check in with her regularly to follow up on late assignments and to make sure the family is supported at home and in the virtual classroom.

"That's not something that we were used to. Any questions that I had, any problems or complications that I had, I just reached out to the teachers," she said. "If it wasn't for my teachers, it would have been difficult."

According to Wise, building strong relationships between teachers and parents has always been key to a successful education at Morton, and it's a strategy that gives the school an edge now with remote learning. Those trusted relationships also allow the school to understand the barriers that are keeping some students from participating.

"Some of them were experiencing some really huge trials… having a relationship with them, they were comfortable telling us what was going on," Wise said.

Wise identified many families at Morton who were experiencing homelessness or in temporary living situations. Students in these families have been logging on for virtual classes less than any other demographic, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of CPS data.

To help those students participate, the school gave WiFi hotspots to every family in temporary living situations since they wouldn't have otherwise been able to get online.

"A lot of people that are in a shelter, they don't have access to the internet," said Davis, who is in a temporary living situation. "A lot of people don't realize they could get access to it. That's why I appreciate Morton that they go and see about everybody. If they can't reach them by phone, they go knocking on doors."

Wise believes these accommodations to bridge the digital divide should be permanent. These opportunity gaps have always existed and are just being exposed by the pandemic, she said.

"Things should never go back to the way they were before," Wise said. "If we keep the technology access levels where they're at, then we won't ever be in a situation where we're caught off guard and not knowing how to provide students with equitable education."

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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