Op-Ed: ZIP Code Shouldn’t Determine the Tech Experiences of Students

Danielle West | June 8, 2018 | Opinion
How can schools in poorer, urban areas create a level playing field with their suburban counterparts?

Danielle West
Recently, I attended a leadership conference at a private school in Princeton. As I pulled up to the sprawling campus, I thought “Oh wow,” how do we develop a campus like this for my scholars at Queen City Academy Charter School (QCACS). Once I stepped into the building, I was in a state of awe at the school’s dedication to STEM and the technological tools that were at their disposal. From Apple laptops to Raspberry Pi computers and more, this school had its finger on the pulse of the digital tools that are necessary for scholars to thrive in today’s world.

Then I thought back to the school that I lead and how hard it has been for us to reach a one-to-one scholar/computer ratio, and how we haven’t been able to acquire even basic Chromebook laptops. When looking at the access that the scholars at Princeton have to technology and the freedom that accompanied their exploration of these tools, I realized that this level of access to technology — if not granted to my scholars — would only further widen the digital divide, making it harder and harder for them to compete with their counterparts.

In pondering how do we as a school community — and in a larger context urban or rural school districts — begin to ensure we are truly providing access and equity with regard to technology, my mind drifted to a recent visit to the Google offices where I could see technology and collaboration at optimal performance levels. Google has mastered “unworking work” to create an environment that leads to innovation. This concept caused me to begin thinking about how do we “unschool school” in the same way. Until we are able to provide our scholars at QCACS with access to technological resources and an environment in which free thought can flourish, we will not create scholars who can truly innovate and collaborate.

Affluent school districts and private schools in New Jersey do not have this issue, and they have the resources and capacity to provide such access. However, this is not the case for many scholars in classrooms in less affluent neighborhoods not just in New Jersey but across the country. Recently, I read the book Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race and Computing. Through their research, the authors found that when courses in computer science are offered in schools with high numbers of low-income scholars and scholars of color, the focus is often not on advanced programming skills. Instead, scholars spend their time learning keyboarding and other rudimentary skills. It is this lack, or inadequate exposure, that continues to widen both the achievement gap and digital divide.

Nationwide, there has been a push to change this narrative and truly make an impact. However, this research is dated; as a result, it has been a very slow process. Yet in January 2018, the New Jersey Legislature adopted Senate-Bill S-2485, which requires completion of a computer science class as part of the high school graduation requirements. But the bill only addresses teaching computer science in ninth grade, and some scholars are coming to preschool and kindergarten with the ability to navigate multiple technology platforms.

What’s more, scholars in affluent school districts are beginning to learn the basics of coding as early as kindergarten, through the use of programs such as Scratch Jr., which teaches students ages 5 – 7 basic programming. At QCACS, which mirrors Plainfield demographically, 89 percent of our scholars qualify for free or reduced lunch. That means 89 percent of our families earn an income that is at or below the poverty threshold. For a family of three, the poverty level is $26,546 – $37,414 for a family of five. Just as our families have limited resources, so does our school; we do not have wealthy parent-teacher associations that can fund our technology needs and extracurricular activities. As a result, we are left to look for grants and private funders that can aid us in improving our overall academic experience through the latest technology.

Statewide, we must begin to look at making sure scholars from pre-K through high school have access to classes in which the curriculum exposes them to the basics of coding, as well as how to utilize technology resources to ensure efficiency in daily life. With a new, progressive governor who is committed to ensuring the success of all communities, it is my hope that Gov. Phil Murphy will look at how we can continue to create learning spaces in urban centers that rival those of their suburban counterparts. Regardless of ZIP code, scholars deserve level playing fields.

As a next step, our school is looking to “unschool school” for both our scholars and our staff. We are beginning to look at ways to bring available technology into our classrooms and allow tools like the common cellphone to be used to enhance the instructional experiences of our scholars. While this is an immediate step, our long-term goal is to ensure that our scholars have an environment that is technologically savvy, with the most up-to-date resources and tools. This will ensure that despite their ZIP code, our scholars will be on a level playing field when it comes to technology, education, and experiences as our counterparts in affluent neighborhoods across the state.