By Susan Gale

You’ve probably heard the term “digital divide,” which identifies the gulf between those who have easy access to computers and Internet and those who do not.

The Pew Research Center reports that five million U.S. families with school-aged children do not have Internet access at home, but the FCC’s Broadband Task Force found that 70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires web access, creating a “homework gap” that puts these students at a disadvantage academically and can hurt their futures.

But what does the digital divide actually mean for real Rhode Island students?

For Issaic Reynolds, a 9th grader, it meant frantically trying to finish his homework in school and never spending the time on it that he needed to, resulting in great stress and lower grades.

For Charmin Aquino, an 11th grader, it meant waiting until her father got home from work to use his phone for Internet access. As an English-as-a-second-language (ESL) student, she never had enough time to work on her language studies and help her younger siblings with their school work.

For Danielle Garcia, a 10th grader, it meant traveling in the dark every day to school at 5:30 am and coming home at 6 pm so she could use the computers and Internet access. She missed out on spending time with her nephew and her mother worried about her being out in the dark.

Matthew Silvia, a 10th grader, it meant procrastinating on his homework because he often spends time with his grandmother who has no Internet access.

These four students at Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School in Providence all want to do well in school but are thwarted by their lack of access to technology and internet at home.

Why is there a digital divide?

Low income households are the most affected by the digital divide, as 31.4% of households with children 6-17, whose incomes fall below $50,000, do not have a high-speed Internet connection at home, according to the Pew Research Center. By comparison, only 8.4% of households with annual incomes over $50,000 lack this connection. In other words, low-income homes with children are nearly four times more likely to be without broadband than their middle or upper-income counterparts.

Teachers also say the Internet and digital tools are important for schools. According to a Pew study, 67% of teachers say the Internet has a major impact on their ability to interact with parents, and 57% say it has a major impact on enabling their interaction with students. But when students do not have Internet and digital tools at home, they lose the opportunity for greater interaction with their teachers.

Living the digital divide

For the students living it, the digital divide is more than statistics. It impacts their daily lives and success in school.

“I thought I wasn’t going to pass. I always had to ask the teacher for extra time,” said 9th grader Reynolds. “I would do it in school as fast as I can. If I didn’t get it done, I had to push myself.”

For school officials, the issue is important as well.

“So much is about personalized learning here and technology helps to determine where individual kids are at and what they need,” said Laura Hart, Director of Communications for Providence Public Schools. “You don’t want that learning to stop when the bell rings.”

 Sprint steps in with a “homework gap” program

 A new project, supported by Sprint, is being tested in Providence to help close the “homework gap.” Sprint, the communications company, and the Sprint Foundation have started the 1Million Project, a multi-year initiative to foster academic success for one million low-income students by providing them with reliable connectivity to complete their school assignments from home.

As part of the project, 250 Providence public high school students will participate. Providence is one of 11 pilots that include Brockton, Mass.; Chicago; Dallas; Kansas City, Mo.; Paterson, NJ; San Diego; and other cities. The pilot program was kicked off at Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School in January with 125 students receiving devices and/or hotspots.

“Everyone at Sprint is committed to this important initiative,” said Gabriel Torres, Sprint’s Regional President for New England.

Already making a difference

 Aquino, the 11th grade ESL student, is anxious to move past ESL classes but not having home access to Duolingo, an online program, slowed her down. It also meant that she could not spend much time helping her younger brother. But with her Wi-Fi hotspot from Sprint, that has changed. “I don’t have to stay after school. Now I can translate for him,” she said. “He has improved his grades because I have it.”

Reynolds has seen a direct correlation to his grades because he can now access the Internet at home. In an online reading program called Achieve 3000, his score went from 500 to 900. During the big snowstorm in February, Reynolds was home doing schoolwork, noting that on one assignment he got the highest score in the school.

While there are public places to get Internet, they aren’t sufficient. The biggest change, the students said, is having the ability to decide when they want to do schoolwork and having enough time to do it well.

“At the library, you can only get two hours. It’s not enough time to do everything,” said 10th grader Garcia. “[The program] makes us feel like we have more power over what we can do. We’re not a slave to homework. It’s your choice when you want to do it. It’s a lot less stress because you can do it whenever you want – on weekends, when the library is closed.”

For Garcia, having a tablet to use at home has encouraged her to read more and start researching colleges. “It’s really a great opportunity. A lot of people aren’t privileged to have what we have,” she said. “I feel for people who don’t have the program.”

There is one downside to the program, all four of the students noted. “There’s no excuses. You have to get the work done now,” said Garcia, as the other students nodded in agreement.

The pilot program will run through the end of the 2017 school year. Feedback will be applied in preparation for a nationwide program rollout at the start of the 2017-2018 school year. Schools and school districts who want to apply to the program can visit for more information.

Susan Gale is Founder and Publisher of Rhode Island Parent Magazine.