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Tackling the 'Homework Gap': Maryland County to Expand FiberNet Infrastructure, Forge Public-Private Partnerships

Montgomery County, Md., wants to ensure that all children have access to the Internet to further their education, and public officials are devising a strategy to make it happen.

In Montgomery County, Md., public officials are assembling an arsenal of technology fixes to address the “homework gap,” the technology deficit that leaves some kids lacking the network access and devices they need to complete their schoolwork.

“The Internet and broadband and cloud communications are integral to our society — our businesses, our neighborhoods, our personal lives," said Mitsuko R. Herrera, director of the ultraMontgomery Program in the county’s Department of Technology Services. "So the schools are developing curricula that are heavily Internet-based.”

Citing research that shows some 70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires access to broadband, Herrera said not all students have an equal ability to tackle such assignments.

“Some students have a robust Internet connection and a computer, but other students either have no connection at home, or they may be relying on a sibling’s smartphone, or they may do their homework at McDonald’s,” she said. “The county wants to ensure that all children have access to the Internet in order to further their education.”

The county is chasing that goal with a number of different means, forging partnerships with private industry while also leveraging its own existing fiber backbone.

The county’s FiberNet infrastructure connects all public schools, libraries and government buildings — over 560 sites in all — making it the front line of broadband delivery for students who can’t access the Internet for schoolwork at home.

“When children are in the library, when they are in their schools and using the computers, then they are using FiberNet,” Herrera said. “The libraries have computer labs, they have study space and they have access to a lot of databases.”

The county thinks it can do more with FiberNet, using it as a springboard to get students connected even when they are outside the school.

“We want to expand that into the recreation centers. They stay open later than the libraries and it is another place in your neighborhood that is relatively quiet, where you can find space to do your homework,” Herrera said. While there’s no firm plan yet, the near-term goal is to lay additional fiber to connect several community centers and county service centers.

FiberNet also exists in several public housing communities, where Herrera envisions it being deployed more broadly, especially in existing family resource rooms, which may incorporate a designated study area.

Ultimately, though, homework mostly gets done at home, and so the county is also looking for ways to enhance connectivity at home for students who do not have broadband access.

The foremost tool there is a partnership with Comcast, whose Internet Essentials program makes broadband available to low-income households for about $10 a month.

While that program could do much to close the gap, it is not as widely adopted as it could be. As many as 40,000 county kids might be eligible for the subsidy, and yet just under 49,000 residents participate in the program across the entire Washington, D.C., metro area.

"It is clear that Montgomery County students and their families are underutilizing this attractive offer,” IT advisor Costis Toregas said in a February 2016 memo to the county council (PDF).

To bolster the program, Comcast has recently expanded the number of eligible schools in the county. In addition, school system staffers have worked with Comcast to send direct mailings to households of all eligible students, Toregas noted.

The county also wants to works with local providers RCN and Verizon FIOS to create additional subsidized broadband offerings, similar to Comcast’s program.

Toregas recommended that the council focus on metrics as a means of further narrowing the homework gap by establishing a baseline set of underserved population numbers and articulating specific desired percentage improvements.

At the same time, the county may need to put a greater emphasis not just on available technologies, but also on its own marketing methodologies.

“In every classroom there are three or four kids who don’t have access to the Internet at home in a sufficient manner," Herrera said. "But instead of focusing on those three or four, we blanket the entire school with information, so 90 percent of the people who get the information don’t need or qualify for the program."

While broadband subsidy programs have the potential for social good, however, Herrera noted that they can too often be undermined by ineffective communications.

“When a letter comes home from the principal, is it geared to someone who doesn’t speak English as their first language? Is it geared to someone who may only have a fourth-grade reading level?” she said.

To overcome the homework gap, she added, “We need to actually address this on a case-by-case basis. When a parent comes in to do a parent-teacher conference, we have to make Internet access part of that conversation.”

FiberNet and subsidies can help close the technology gap among Montgomery County students. But some say that the fix may depend on factors outside the IT department’s authority — that the digital divide ultimately breaks along economic fault lines.

“Families need jobs to thrive, and the lack of high paying jobs…has real consequences in the classroom,” County Councilmember Hans Riemer said in a recent blog post. “Concentrated poverty in our neighborhoods is the greatest threat to academic achievement in our schools.”