Mia Stewart wasn’t enjoying having Veteran’s Day off, as the rest of her classmates were. She was worried. She had to turn in a book report on “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie the next day, but she didn’t have a place to type it and print it. She doesn’t have a computer at home, and the places she usually relies on to do her computer work—the school library or the non-profit Youth UpRising—were closed.
“I feel a little different, because some people at my school do have Internet access at home” said Stewart, age 13. “They don’t have to worry, cause they can go home and do it. But I can’t.”
Stewart is not the only student in Oakland who faces this kind of difficulty. According to a study conducted by Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) in August and September, 14,097 students do not have computers and/or high-speed Internet access at home. That represents about 40 percent of the student population in Oakland.
This means that these students have to search for alternative ways to do their computer-based homework, to type reports, to do online research or complete college applications. The Oakland Public Library, nonprofit organizations, school labs or a friend’s house are some of the solutions students have come up with, but they are far from being ideal, according to Hannah Kahl, afterschool coordinator at Castlemont High School. “To create quality work, you need a certain amount of focus time where you can really get deep into the material,” she said. Kahl said that when students start a project in the library and then continue their work at a friend’s house, they lose their ability to focus and do deeper work on their papers, because the environment is more distracting.
Charon Darris, a strategic fellow at the OUSD who lead the data collection, said that they surveyed a number of schools from across the district and were able to extrapolate the results to determine how many students need a computer and Internet access at home. To obtain that number, they relied on a statistic called the LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula), the indicator the state of California uses to measure poverty and to figure out how much funding to provide to a school district or a specific school.
Darris said this calculation has three components: The number of students who qualify for free or reduced lunches, students who may be homeless or in foster care, and students who might be English language learners. Darris said that after surveying a number of schools, they were able to see the correlation between a higher level of poverty (indicated by a higher LCFF), and a higher percentage of students who don’t have a computer and broadband in their homes.
“We made the decision that if that LCFF range was higher, we were going to mark that as a 50 percent adoption rate,” said Darris. In other words, they figured, if a school is within the LCFF range of 85 to 100 percent, half of the students at that school would likely be in need of a computer. For example, the Coliseum College Prep Academy in East Oakland has a LCFF of over 90 percent, and they have a total enrolment of 473 students. According to the study’s calculations, that would mean that at least half of them—237 students—need a computer and Internet access at home.
Similarly, the researchers decided, in the schools within a LCFF range of 50 to 84 percent, a third of the students would need a computer and Internet access. And the schools with a lower range, with an LCFF score from 0 to 49, would only have a 1 percent need. For instance, Crocker Highlands Elementary School has a LCFF of 7.89 percent and 431 students enrolled, so according to the study, only 4 students would need a computer.
As you can see in the map that accompanies this story, the areas of need are not evenly distributed across the city, with the highest needs for computer and Internet access occurring in schools in East and West Oakland. “In many of the poor and low-income communities, particularly in areas in East and West Oakland, you are still going to find a massive divide among people and that includes access to technology,” said Michael Hunt, communications coordinator at Youth UpRising, an East Oakland hub that offers young people physical, educational, arts and career programs. “Computers may be more available for middle class homes and people at large, but when you talk about people that have limited access to health care, limited access to high quality education, you are also going to have a population that is limited in financial needs and resources.”
According to Darris, the OUSD has implemented a “One-to-one around-the-clock” strategy to ensure that students have access to computers in school, after school at recreation centers, and at home. The district has been working to provide computers to students in partnership with Oakland Technology Exchange West, which refurbishes used computers and has been offering a free home computer to any family that is a new broadband subscriber.
The Oakland Public Library and its 16 branches have also functioned as an alternative for students who don’t have a computer at home. “Our computers are extremely popular and they are very busy, especially after school hours,” said Sharon McKellar, community relations librarian at the Oakland Public Library. “You can walk into any branch in Oakland and see the computers well-filled, usually with young people.”
Although students can make a reservation for a computer three days in advance online or by calling the library, there are also some limitations for accessing these computers: Students need to have a library card, they can only use those computers for one hour at a time, and there are only around 250 computers available. “There is clearly a huge need in the city for public access computers,” said McKellar.
By relying on the Youth UpRising computer lab (which has 17 state-of-the-art computers), Stewart has been able to work around the system and write papers and do research for school. Last year she even participated in “Project A-Game,” a program and contest where she learned video game creation skills such as programming, digital design and animation. Even though she didn’t have her own computer, she stored her project on one of the Youth UpRising computers for 11 months, the time that it took to finish her game. She ended up winning first place for programming the best game of the tournament. She says she wants to become a shoe designer or a brain surgeon in the future, and a computer would help in either profession, because “it helps to create the fundamentals from scratch.”
Trevor Watson, age 15, a student from Castlemont High School in East Oakland, has also faced difficulties because he doesn’t have a computer at home. “I have actually failed a class before, because I didn’t have a computer,” said Watson. “It was a huge book report and I couldn’t hand it out.” He says getting his schoolwork done takes him longer than his classmates, and that sometimes he just can’t turn in the projects on time, which is affecting his grades. “It will affect my future, because a lot of people want to see grades and results. If my grades are low, therefore my results are low, and I won’t have the quality that I need,” said Watson.
Hunt said that when computers and high-speed Internet are out of reach for some members of a community, it creates a kind of segregation by limiting where people can work and advance their education and careers. “What so many take for granted cannot in good conscience be denied to those who need it most,” he said.
The original was published in Oakland North: https://oaklandnorth.net/2014/12/01/ousd-study-finds-link-between-lack-of-internet-computer-access-and-poverty-level/