Prior to March 2020, we knew we had a digital divide in Highline Public Schools that prevented too many of our students from accessing their learning from home. Once the decision was made to close schools, we scrambled as a district and community to strategically deploy over 13,000 devices to those students who did not have a reliable device at home. Suddenly, after years of debating the pros and cons of a 1:1 device initiative, we found ourselves having to do it in the moment in order for our students to attend school from home — and remain connected to one another.
Without home broadband access, however, our students could not connect with their teachers and classmates and remain part of their school community, albeit remotely.
A community effort pays off
Thanks to our dedicated and talented Highline staff and community, we have been largely successful in bridging our digital divide through fundraising and partnerships while also raising awareness of the need to ensure that every student has the technology they need to succeed. Here are some examples of how our efforts are paying off:
- Under the heading of “never waste a good crisis,” in November 2020 we successfully passed the first technology levy in the district’s history with an approval of over 73 percent.
- In our family survey last spring, over 95% of respondents said that they nowhad reliable home broadband access.
- In recent months I have received an unprecedented number of family emails in Spanish and Vietnamese — our top two languages after English — indicating that our families now have the technology to connect with us.
Technology is not the only road block
In addition to barriers caused by the digital divide, we also recognized early on that we had another divide preventing students from remaining connected to their school community: a relationship divide. Despite the hard work of so many staff, we knew that not all of our students had a meaningful connection with an adult in their school. So, at the same time as we launched a 1:1 device initiative, we launched a 1:1 student-staff connection effort so that our students had the social-emotional support they need to be successful.
Connection matters in times of crisis, but we should never forget that once the crisis subsides, our commitment to ensuring all students are known by name, strength and need must remain as strong as ever. We have seen what is possible when we choose, or are compelled, to no longer ignore the realities facing our students and families. We must continue to advocate for universal broadband access so that every student can access learning both in and out of our school buildings. This is one of the most significant equity issues of our time.
Susan Enfield, Ph.D., is the superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Washington state, where her district is implementing a strategic plan committed to the academic and social-emotional growth of all students so they graduate prepared for the future they choose. A high school English, journalism and ELL teacher, Susan served as chief academic officer and then as interim superintendent for Seattle Public Schools before coming to Highline in 2012. She previously held leadership positions in Evergreen Public Schools (Vancouver, Washington), Portland Public Schools and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.