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Houston Lawmakers Ask School District to Renew Internet Program

Houston Independent School District ended its agreement for free laptops and Internet access from Verizon over a disagreement about professional development. Now lawmakers are saying students will be negatively impacted.

(TNS) — A dozen Houston-area state lawmakers sent a letter to Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles asking him to restore a partnership with Verizon that provided free laptops and Internet access to thousands of students.

Twelve Democratic lawmakers, including two state senators and 10 representatives representing HISD families and students, signed the letter expressing their disappointment with the district's decision to end the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program, according to the Houston Landing, which first reported the story.

"With our children's futures on the line, we urge you to either renew the partnership with Verizon or find an alternative vendor that can immediately provide free Internet service for these students," the letter said.

Verizon announced in October that the program was ending due to a lack of interest from the district in continuing the program. Miles said during a November news conference that the program provided free technology that came with strings attached, such as required professional development for teachers in participating schools.

"We're not going to have anybody from the outside professionally develop our teachers on the quality of instruction, instructional strategies or techniques," Miles said.

The program — operated by Verizon and nonprofit Digital Promise — gives Chromebooks, four-year data plans and technology support to students and teachers to bridge the digital divide. It has reached 56,500 students and 2,500 teachers in HISD in the past three years, according to Verizon.

"Study after study has demonstrated the importance of students having Internet access in order to succeed academically, as well as the inevitability that they will fall behind their peers without it," the lawmakers' letter said. "It is unconscionable for us to allow this to happen when such great legislative efforts and expenditures have been made to close the digital divide."

In a response to the lawmakers' letter, Miles said the district is no longer going to allow companies, vendors, and consultants to directly train district teachers or principals in key areas related to improving student achievement as part of its work to raise the quality of instruction.

He said vendors and consultants must instead agree to train central office staff only, who will then train teachers and principals. This will help ensure members of the HISD team receive clear and consistent coaching and feedback, so they can provide students with high‐quality instruction.

"We had hoped to be able to continue this program; unfortunately, Verizon was unwilling to adapt its model to work with the district," he said.

Miles said HISD made unlimited mobile broadband available to any student in need via hot spot after the Verizon contract ended, but no families have requested the support so far.

"Our team is ready to assist any child who needs service and will get them online right away," Miles said. "Finally, HISD is actively working to move beyond hot spots and temporary fixes to a lasting solution that will deliver community wide Internet access to students in school feeder patterns with neighborhoods that have traditionally been underserved."

Roughly 600,000 households in Harris County lacked Internet connectivity in 2022, according to census data. About 14 percent of young HISD students reported not having reliable Internet in fall 2021, according to a survey by the Houston Education Research Consortium.

At least 36 HISD campuses participated in the Verizon program before it ended. While participating HISD campuses and students were able to keep their laptops, they lost Internet access on Nov. 17, according to the Landing.

The letter states that the move to cancel the program contradicts the goal of Destination 2035, which is Miles' plan to narrow the achievement gap in the district and prepare students for success in 2035.

"It would be an irony as thick as it is tragic to lose sight of that goal by allowing our most vulnerable students to fall behind by depriving them of the basic technology needed to succeed in 2023," the letter said.

©2023 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.