Amara Rockar | Bring technology to West Philly students
Guest Column | The digital divide in schools is often overlooked
November 3, 2011, 12:53 am·
Located just seven blocks to the west of Penn’s campus at 47th and Locust streets, Henry C. Lea Elementary in some ways inhabits a different world. Built in 1914, the building of this K-8 school is almost a century old, and its schoolyard — described by The Philadelphia Inquirer as “barren” — is in stark contrast to leafy Locust Walk with its sleek buildings filled with cutting-edge technologies.
Nearly 90 percent of Lea’s students are classified by the Philadelphia School District as “economically disadvantaged” and already face serious challenges in their young lives. Though much is made these days of increasing standardized test scores in math and reading, an issue frequently overlooked is the digital divide: many Lea students have little access to computers at home — and at school.
David Fox, a highly dedicated seventh and eighth grade social studies teacher at Lea, has seen the impact the technology deficit has on his students. “Having not been exposed to computers at a young age, our students often plod through typing, have difficulty navigating the Internet and become frustrated with basic computer tasks,” he wrote in an email. “In later grades, when our students have opportunities to research and create using computers, it hinders them.”
Anyone that has ever attempted to help a technophobe parent or grandparent with a computer knows just how difficult it is to achieve technological fluency later in life. Anyone who has ever seen a toddler expertly navigate an iPad knows how quickly, if provided access, small children can pick up critical computer skills. If Lea’s middle-school students don’t succeed in catching up in short order, the problem can persist to high school in a district with an overall graduation rate of 63 percent and a rate of 50 percent or lower for African-American and Latino males.
Further, I would be remiss not to recognize that this sentence is most likely being read on a laptop or digital device at one of the top universities in the world. A huge issue in the Philadelphia School District is making sure more graduates attend college, but, once there, students will need computer skills in order to thrive. It’s not hard to imagine that today’s kindergarteners will graduate into an economy where computer literacy will be a basic requirement of most entry-level jobs that pay a living wage.
It is true that there are already some initiatives and projects attempting to deal with the problem. Although Comcast recently rolled out a low-income “Internet Essentials” program to help underserved communities access computers and the internet, the program is just beginning its outreach. Both Penn and Drexel universities have donated no-longer-needed departmental computers to Lea’s media lab.
However, to fight the digital divide successfully, technology is best utilized in a classroom setting, especially in the key lower grades. Fox has taken the issue into his own hands and nominated Lea Elementary for a $50,000 grant from Clorox through its “Power a Bright Future” program. The funds will be used to purchase laptop carts containing 25 computers each to be used in Lea’s kindergartens through third grades. Lea’s selection for the grant is determined by popular vote online or by text message.
Given that the method of winning the grant requires access to the very divide the grant is trying to solve, Fox has reached out to neighborhood groups to help publicize the opportunity and encourage voting, including the West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools, of which I am the chairwoman. WPCNS is a grassroots group that seeks to bring the community and all of its resources into Lea Elementary.
Although this is the first WPCNS initiative addressing the lack of technology access for many Lea students, WPCNS has had several successful Lea projects since the group’s formation in June 2010. In the past year, WPCNS has organized book and school supply drives for Lea, recruited volunteers for the school’s socialized recess program (the “Recess Initiative”) with the Penn Community School Student Partnership, brought volunteer library services through the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children after Lea lost its staff librarian due to budget cuts and partnered with the Enterprise Center for a Community Design Collaborative planning grant to green the schoolyard.
A neighborhood school, by definition, cannot exist in a vacuum. Increasing Lea’s connection to its surrounding community is vital to ensuring that its students succeed and that community includes neighboring universities such as Penn, its students, faculty, staff and alumni. There are many ways to get involved and support Lea Elementary, both during school hours and after, and only a few of them are outlined above. But the easiest is to text clorox6587 to 44144 or vote here every day until Dec. 9. Anyone age 13 or older can vote.
Amara Rockar is the chairwoman of the West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools Steering Committee. Her email address is