Ensuring Equal Access to Tech

Originally posted in Medium.

2015-01-23 07.53.14

For some, technology has made the world a smaller place and brought us closer together. For others, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened. Take technology in schools for example — students in certain schools, primarily where the poor and people of color reside, still lack access to the basic technology and tools they need to help them succeed in today’s world. A University of Chicago study has found that “at-risk” youth — including low socioeconomic students — in Chicago use technology less than other students. The same report also revealed that increased technology use was correlated with higher student outcomes.

As a student, I attended my neighborhood public school in Chicago and from a very early age, I felt the difference between the haves and the have-nots. Now, as a teacher in the same system, the gap has become even more apparent.

I grew up here and went to my neighborhood school. Like many public schools at the time that primarily served low-income students, there was very little technology in the building. My school had a computer lab equipped with 30 or so desktop computers, but it was only used by students who needed remediation. The first time I used a computer at school was during an after school class when the school decided the high-performing students needed technology exposure before high school.

In high school, all this changed. I went to Whitney Young High School — Chicago’s first magnet school. Suddenly, technology was everywhere. We had two computer labs, a TV production lab, and a media lab. It was an amazing transition. I felt empowered and trusted, like I was in control of where my future was going because I finally had the right tools at my fingertips. This is where my passion for education began, and part of what drove me to become a teacher. I knew — even back then ­– that if more students had this type of access and these experiences, it could be a game changer.

For the past 13 years, I’ve been teaching at Enrico Tonti Elementary School, a school that has the luxury of providing our students with technology, though not without effort. Many students at Enrico Tonti don’t have access to the level of technology required for future careers, so that the school has taken it upon itself to provide access to those tools. My students have access to so much more technology than I ever had and it has made a huge difference.

Our students are learning to use devices at a young age. In kindergarten, they learn how to handle the equipment, use QR codes, take screenshots, type, and even code. Eventually, students learn to create digital content and by fifth grade they design their own websites. Students use technology during the day to work on self-paced learning programs tailored to meet them at their specific level. The best part is how well this is working; in a survey we gave, nine out of ten students said that they pay more attention and focus better when using technology. This bodes well for their future careers.

Although we’ve come a long way since my time in elementary school — Enrico Tonti is proof — there’s still more we can and must do to narrow the gap. In a city where poverty and crime are so closely linked — where 2,995 people were shot in 2015 — we must find ways to educate youth who need it most. It’s the only way to bend the curve of systemic poverty and make our city safer and more prosperous.

Technology is not an end in and of itself and I certainly don’t think it’s the answer to all our educational problems. But we must be aware of the message we are sending to our students if we don’t address the barriers that currently exist. All students should have access to the types of devices and programs they’ll be expected to navigate as adults. If we don’t show them we trust them, who will?

As the politics around the future of Chicago Pubic Schools intensify and new deals and policies are discussed and negotiated, let’s be sure that we are not forgetting our city’s most vulnerable youth and that we do everything we can to equip them with the tools they desperately need to succeed. We’ve made some progress since my years as a student, but our work is not finished.

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