When schools in the St. Louis region transitioned to remote learning last March, thousands of children were left behind and unable to connect to virtual classrooms because they had no access to the internet. Three weeks prior to school reopening in August, over two-thirds of the students at one elementary school had not been in contact.
Realizing that the “Digital Divide” would be catastrophic to children in low-income, low-performing schools in the St. Louis Public School District, Karen Kalish, CEO of the nonprofit HOME WORKS! The Teacher Home Visit Program, knew the organization had to find a way to help. Kalish’s team realized that to make an immediate difference they would focus resources on one school to make sure all students were online all day and parents and teachers had what they needed. Then they would share the learnings with similar schools far and wide.
They selected Patrick Henry Downtown Academy, a Pre-K through 5th grade elementary school with 80% of the students living in three housing projects within walking distance. Approximately 30% of the 231 students are homeless. Many parents have several jobs, and most live without internet access. The initiative is called Getting Patrick Henry Connected and they dubbed it a BHAG, a Big Hairy Audacious Goal.
They reached out to the community for support and volunteers to call students, deliver supplies and food to families, support teachers and be buddies for students who need an extra hand. “Many requirements for remote learning that schools in more affluent districts take for granted, such as internet access, devices, and headphones, and even the ability to locate and contact families, present major roadblocks to the students and families of Patrick Henry,” HOME WORKS! writes. “The digital divide will not close without intentional, coordinated and strategic initiatives. Getting Patrick Henry Connected is such an initiative.”
A week before school started, most parents had attended an orientation and picked up Bankers Boxes filled with distance learning resources for their children. Volunteers have made hundreds of phone calls to students and families and attendance has improved. They also assembled and delivered 200 learning kits with headphones, iPad stands and pencil sharpeners, and provided technical support to dozens of families and some of the teachers. The St. Louis Fire Department pitched in after teachers heard “chirping” in the background from several students during virtual class. The chirping was from smoke detectors with dead batteries. Local firefighters went to each house to install fresh batteries, and then installed smoke detectors in homes that did not have one.
The HOME WORKS! team will continue to respond to the needs of Patrick Henry’s principal and teachers, students and families. Academics from local universities are documenting everything and writing a case study to be used in graduate schools, and a playbook that describes objectives and actions used to achieve goals that will be shared regularly throughout the year far and wide.
“The ultimate goal of course,” says Kalish, “is for all students and their families to have access to the internet in their homes at all times. This is a civil rights issue. The poorest students should have the same opportunities as the wealthiest ones. Internet access should be as ubiquitous as water and electricity.”
Learn more about Getting Patrick Henry Connected.