Closing the Digital Divide in Northeastern Mississippi Communities

Schools are a great example of the challenges and opportunities that technology can bring to a community. The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Emerging Technology, Internet and Telecommunications are all playing a role in bridging the digital divide and the growing “homework gap”, where students lack access to residential and community broadband. Even in communities with exceptional bandwidth in their schools, how do student experiences change when nearby institutions and facilities, such as libraries, churches, and other public centers, have limited digital resources and connectivity? How does this affect the ability of students to share their digital experiences from school with the community? This document examines both the availability and capacity of local authorities to close the homework gap and the much wider digital divide in historically disadvantaged communities. It also looks at how each school implemented its partnership with the Apple initiative and ConnectED.

The main focus is on school-community connections, since student use of technology is often contained within educational institutions. In the 1990s, debates about the digital divide focused on strategies to improve access to public computing, equipment, software, and digital literacy training for providers and users. Larry Irving, former deputy administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, coined the term “digital divide” to compare those who were online with those who were not. These citizens were disproportionately people of color, foreign-born residents, high school dropouts, older Americans, and rural residents.

Programmatic efforts being carried out in schools and communities were established to address this persistent gap, which still affects more than 10% of US citizens who do not have access to high-speed broadband or do not have a general interest in technology. Nowadays, innovation is constantly increasing with new products, services, and online platforms. New industries supported by AI and machine learning algorithms are rapidly moving citizens from an analog to a digital economy. However, American students are lagging behind their peers from China, South Korea, and Singapore when it comes to creating and working in this new sharing economy.

While some research argues that global disparities are due to the lack of access to universal high-speed broadband networks in the US. The Francis Marion School was chosen for this case study as it is located on the western outskirts of downtown Phoenix with a large population of undocumented immigrants. Maricopa County has a difficult history of vilifying immigrants under the leadership of former Sheriff Joseph Arpaio who was known for racially profiling and detaining Latinos in the Phoenix area. After 24 years in office he was ousted and sentenced to prison for his unfair and unconstitutional treatment of Latino residents, many of whom were not legal residents at the time.

In addition to their demographic differences, I also chose each school because their respective local communities have a wide range of local assets including libraries, local businesses, and non-profit organizations. This information was obtained before the actual field visits using an online search. For each case study data was collected through direct interviews with principals, teachers, parents, and community leaders. The students were not interviewed for this article but observational data can be shared.

Prior to the start of site visits district superintendents applied for and approved research permits. The Francis Marion School is one of two schools in the Perry County School District; it is a consolidated preschool through twelfth grade school with 694 students; 99% of whom are African American; more than 70% of students are economically disadvantaged; student achievement in basic studies including reading math and science falls 23%, 19%, and 15% respectively coming close to the bottom of Alabama schools in standardized test scores; despite these low scores 92% of students graduate and just over 50% are ready to go to college; Trimble began as a substitute teacher in the Perry County school system and for the past three decades served as the school's top administrator; at the time the proposal was submitted to Apple the school served only high school students; soon after the grant was awarded the school was placed on the state's disapproval list and risked closing; resources were successfully redirected to the consolidated school making your case study unique due to its size; internet access is not easily available in Marion Alabama when I arrived in the community from Birmingham two-lane road was flooded with colorful signs promoting cheap Internet deals; Trimble considered lack of access to broadband at home as main reason for its decision to allow home use recognizing device's potential to have multiplier effect in student home; Francis Marion's team also includes AT&T broadband service so that students & other family members can also access Internet at home; some researchers have argued that effective leadership in schools is first step in slow acculturation & adoption of technology; leadership promotes vision of using school technology to energize participation. The document concludes with a series of proposals and programs to close these local gaps that are stifling strong digital interactions in low-income communities. These proposals include providing access to high-speed broadband networks for all citizens regardless of their economic status or location; increasing digital literacy training for providers and users; creating public-private partnerships between schools, libraries, churches, businesses, non-profits organizations; providing incentives for students who participate in digital activities outside of school; encouraging collaboration between teachers and community leaders; promoting innovative uses of technology within classrooms; providing resources for teachers who want to integrate technology into their curriculum; encouraging parents' involvement in their children's education by providing them with resources such as online tutorials or workshops on how to use technology effectively. These initiatives will help bridge the digital divide between those who have access to technology resources at home or at school versus those who do not have access or do not know how to use them effectively.

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