Alliance says yes: Can digital divide in Greenwich students be overcome?

As the culture becomes more and more digitally connected, access to technology becomes more important with every passing day, especially for students dreaming of college or good jobs after graduation.

But in a community like Greenwich where it seems everyone has an iPad and wireless connectivity is taken for granted, it can be easy to forget that not everyone has access to smartphones, 4G network compatibility or even a computer at home to do their work on. To address that disparity and give students a needed boost to keep up with their classmates, a public schools media specialist is working with the Greenwich Alliance for Education and partners like Greenwich Library to “bridge the digital divide.”

The Bridging the Digital Divide program is entering its second year of Alliance support and its goals are simple. By providing desktop computers to students who don’t have them, the hope is not only that they will be able to spend more time working at home on school assignments but also that, by removing dependency on Internet access at places like the library or the Boys & Girls Club, it will also free up time for after-school activities and part-time jobs. Giving these students computer access at home may also benefit their siblings and parents.

The program was the brainchild of Jennifer Lau, a media specialist at Central Middle School, who is the project director and gives hands-on attention to it, to the point that she is literally hooking up the computers in students’ homes and serving as tech support.

“We want to level the playing field for students so they can do what they need to on computers and online at home and not be constrained by having to depend on places that provide public access,” Ms. Lau told the Post in an interview this week. “Most students in Greenwich have that 24/7 access and there’s not a problem with having to do everything else around a certain time frame when they can get on a computer. Those students can go after school and be a star on a team or do theater and then come home at 11 p.m. and work on their homework. They don’t have to make a choice between doing things after school and getting your homework done. Not every student can do that, though, and if you don’t have that access then you have to make a choice. That’s what motivated me to do this. Students shouldn’t have to choose.”

Ms. Lau said she saw the need to help after beginning her education career working with kindergartners through fifth graders at the International School at Dundee and then doing the same at Hamilton Avenue School.

“There was a huge discrepancy in comparable experience between these kids,” Ms. Lau said. “Kids at Hamilton Avenue didn’t even know how to move a mouse, and at ISD they knew how to do everything. I was stunned when I saw this. It felt wrong, and I wanted to do something about it.”

Ms. Lau said only when she began working at Greenwich High School did she become aware of the Alliance’s grant program, which benefits programs like this to enhance opportunities for Greenwich students who might otherwise not get them.

Julie Faryniarz, the Alliance’s executive director, said this is exactly the kind of program the Alliance is committed to helping through its grants, which are made possible by community support.

“We see this as a scholarship type program,” Ms. Faryniarz said. “The kids get to keep the computers and it can really be a huge help to them. Say you have a student who is on the verge of failing because they didn’t have the tools to do their work. Wouldn’t you want to help them? What if they couldn’t get to the library to do their work? Those are the kids we’re trying to help.”

Ms. Lau estimated that close to 5% of Greenwich students don’t have home computer access. Currently the Bridging the Digital Divide program, which is funded by a Greenwich Alliance for Education grant, has 15 Greenwich High School students in it. Those students were nominated for the program by teachers and staff and local groups like Community Centers and the Boys & Girls Club. And the 15 is actually a bigger number because of what Ms. Lau calls the “multiplier effect.” Not only do the student’s siblings get to have access but their parents do as well. Because of that, she said, the program is actually reaching closer to 29 students right now and around 20 parents, too.

Ms. Faryniarz said one of the hidden benefits of the program is that some of the families in question were already paying for Internet service they weren’t using because of bundling of services with companies like Optimum and Fios. Now they can actually utilize them.

“The trickle-down effect of this can have a major beneficial effect on the family,” Ms. Faryniarz said.

The computers being used are refurbished desktops that were donated by members of the community. Ms. Lau said she prefers desktops to laptops or iPads because not only can they be used by the whole family but they can also be placed in safe locations in the home where there’s adult supervision. But as part of the program’s development, Ms. Lau said, all options are being considered. Desktops are more expensive than laptops, but computer prices are coming down, which could lead to new computers being purchased. And then there’s the digital learning initiative being put forth by Superintendent of Schools William McKersie, which Ms. Lau said can lead to even more access and equipment for students in need.

Ms. Lau said lack of computer access is a problem that can be both underestimated and overestimated. She said because it doesn’t impact a huge number of students in town, there’s not a lot of awareness of it yet.

“People don’t even realize how tied they are to their electronics until they don’t have them anymore,” Ms. Lau said. “Look at what happened after Hurricane Sandy hit. So many people lost their Internet access. Nobody cared about getting the electricity back. They wanted their bandwidth back. When I went to Greenwich Library, there were people on the floor like refugees looking for whatever kind of access to the Internet they could get. So when people say that this doesn’t matter and that these students can just go to the library, my response is ‘How did that work out for you when you had to do it?’”

But at the same time, Ms. Lau said, it’s important not to overstate the problem, because it’s something she feels can be fixed thanks to this effort and the Alliance’s commitment to helping it grow. Ms. Lau said she wanted to “get the ball rolling” and, by raising awareness, get other people to help. She said the Alliance has been a huge supporter of the project and credited Greenwich Library for all its help in providing space and assistance for classes for people needing computer knowledge and instruction in areas like proper computer use and maintenance and how to stay away from viruses, email scams and other potential online dangers.

Ms. Lau said something like this would be hard for the Greenwich district to be able to pay attention to and fund, and that’s why the Alliance has been so valuable. Calling this a “critical time” for the program, she is focused on growing it and also doing outreach to make sure more people know it exists.

Ms. Faryniarz said the Alliance shares Ms. Lau’s optimism.

“We believe by partnering with other community organizations, this is a problem that we can solve,” Ms. Faryniarz said. “We’re going to partner with the Greenwich Public Schools. We’re going to partner with the United Way. We’re going to partner with Greenwich Library. This is not an insurmountable problem for our community. It will take money, but if we come together we can solve this problem in our community.”

And while the educational impact of the program cannot be measured yet, Ms. Lau said the anecdotal evidence has shown her that it’s working.

“I had a student tell me that they used to do all their work on a paper with the 30 minutes they had on a computer at the Boys & Girls Club, and now she has so much more time to work on her assignments,” Ms. Lau said. “Students like her were having to put in the bare minimum, and now they can work on it longer and put more effort into it. That’s what we’re hoping for.”


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