Almost 5 percent of Anne Arundel County, Md., residents under age 18 live in a home with a computer without Internet access -- but a new program aims to deliver low cost internet to those in need.
(TNS) -- Taylor Walker navigates a car in a computer game easily. He has to drive through numbers that are multiples of two or else his car will crash.
Fifth-grade math exercises moved from worksheets to a website called coolmath.com.
His mom, Kali Radke, said she looks up math problem strategies on YouTube regularly.
But the Internet access that has become essential to learning and parenting was not always available to Kali.
Internet and computer access are essential for homework and assignments, school messages and grades, but some families can't afford a computer or a Internet access in the county.
About 4.5 percent of county residents under age 18 live in a home with a computer without Internet access, and another 3 percent do not have computers, according to 2014 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That's better than the statewide average; 4 percent have a computer but no Internet and 8 percent have neither.
Taylor's math suffered because Radke didn't have access to reliable computer and Internet for him to practice math, she said.
In 2012, Radke lost her home and car. Scrapping together donations from friends for motels rooms and stringing together nights at friends' couches helped Radke and Taylor stay off the streets until they got off the waiting list at a homeless shelter.
The computer at the shelter did not work well, and Radke didn't always have time or transportation to go to public libraries.
"He's very competitive, and not being able to compete discouraged him from math," Radke said.
Last year, Radke finally found a home and signed up for a Comcast program that provides Internet access for families of students with financial needs at $10 a month, about $30 less than the market rate. The Comcast Internet Essentials initiative launched in 2011 and serves more than 12,100 families in Maryland, said Jamie Debole, company spokeswoman.
Debole declined to share a breakdown of the numbers by county.
Families who have at least one child eligible for free or reduced-price lunch can participate in the program, Anne Arundel County Public Schools officials said.
The number of students from low-income families is on the rise in Anne Arundel County, and many of them qualify for the Comcast program.
About a third of county school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, up from 18 percent about a decade ago. Families have to demonstrate financial need to qualify for the program.
"And that doesn't count the families too embarrassed to fill out the paperwork," said Bob Mosier, county schools spokesman.
Anne Arundel students can use school computers and other devices for homework assignments during their free time, but they cannot take the devices home.
The county has about 59,000 devices for its 81,000 students and 9,500 staff, excluding maintenance and facilities employees.
Mosier says the school system promotes the Comcast program for students, which also offers students a computer for $150.
"That doesn't completely solve the program, but it helps a lot," said Greg Barlow, chief information officer for county schools.
Baltimore County started assigning devices to students two years ago and plans to give every student a laptop by the 2017-18 school year.
But Anne Arundel school officials said they are unlikely to adopt a similar policy because it is too expensive.
Other school systems also partner with local organizations and Comcast to help families who can't afford Internet and computers.
In Baltimore city, every student is eligible for the Comcast program because the school system offers free lunch to all students.
In Howard County, the schools partner with a nonprofit, Bright Minds Foundation, to donate devices to disadvantaged families to use at home.
Teachers in Anne Arundel are encouraged to provide alternate options to students who can't complete class assignments, said Stephanie Kelly, senior manager of instructional technology for county schools.
For example, a teacher might provide a DVD as a substitute for an online video, or a printed worksheet instead of an online exercise, to students who don't have reliable Internet access at home.
Kelly said teachers talk to parents during back-to-school nights about limitations at home, such as a lack of Internet access or computer.
Radke said having the computer and Wi-Fi access at home helped her son improve in math.
Taylor, however, is frustrated with his home computer because the Internet connection speed at school is faster. The Comcast program provide Wi-Fi with a speed of 10 megabits per second, which the Federal Communications Commission doesn't consider high-speed. The agency increased the high-speed standard from 4 megabits per second to 25 megabits per second this year.
But Debole, the Comcast spokeswoman, said the standard is "aspirational" and the speed of Internet access for the program supports multiple devices and video streaming.
Radke and Taylor now live in an apartment in Glen Burnie, and Radke works full time at the Maryland Live casino. They use a Intel Compute Stick, a computer the size of a small phone that can connect to a keyboard and any monitor, for homework and work.
During her lunch breaks at the casino, she messages Taylor's teachers on a school resource app called ClassDojo, making sure Taylor turned in assignments .
She can also see awards Taylor won and penalties accrued on the app.
On Tuesday, when Radke greets her son after school, he jokingly drops to the floor. Fifth-grade at Point Pleasant Elementary is tiring, he says.
Radke intercepts Taylor on his way to his room and asks for his backpack.
She pulls out a binder, notebooks and some papers. "Must show work," she reads from a class note. "I still have the paper where you did work, you can show it to her," Radke says to Taylor. A typical preteen, Taylor begrudgingly answers questions about school and homework. Then he remembers a writing assignment and eagerly tells his mother to read his story. "He's proud of his writing," Radke says. Before Taylor gets home and uses the computer, Radke's resume is on her television monitor. She's looking for a part-time job and considering getting a nursing degree.
"Now, we actually have a life," she says.
©2015 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.