One School District’s Simple Solution to the Homework Gap? Local Businesses

Diversity and Equity

One School District’s Simple Solution to the Homework Gap? Local Businesses

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Nov 19, 2018

One School District’s Simple Solution to the Homework Gap? Local Businesses

When Winterset Community Schools launched its one-to-one device program, staff celebrated the milestone. They felt they were a step closer to leveling the playing field for students.

Then the other shoe dropped.

Parents and students at the Iowa school district began to complain that they didn’t have sufficient Wi-Fi at home to access the online assignments students were expected to complete after school hours. They had Chromebooks, but no connection.

Students who are able to access digital learning at school, but not at home, are part of what is known as the “homework gap,” and it affects an estimated 12 million students in the U.S. today, according to a congressional report from last year.

“And we said, ‘That’s not acceptable here. We’ve got to figure out a way to fix that,’” Susie Meade, the superintendent of Winterset Community Schools, tells EdSurge.

Fix it they did. In a world where complex problems like the homework gap might demand costly, technical solutions, Meade found that a simple answer might just do the trick.

As she began thinking about ways to help Winterset students get home internet access, Meade recalled hearing about a district that had tapped local businesses to allow students to come in after school hours and use their Wi-Fi for free. “And I thought, ‘Well, we could do that,’” she says.

Nestled in a small, rural town about 25 miles southwest of Des Moines, Winterset Community Schools serves about 1,700 K-12 students. The town itself, with about 5,000 residents, frequently congregates in a “vibrant” downtown area, which is only about three blocks from the local K-12 schools, Meade says.

The people in Winterset are highly invested in and supportive of the local school district, she adds. That’s due, in part, because Winterset is a close-knit community. But it also has something to do with the proximity of the town square to the schools and what Meade describes as a setting and charm “fit for a Norman Rockwell painting.”

The project got off the ground very quickly. It was so easy, Meade says, that it was almost strange.

First, she called the Madison County Chamber of Commerce to clear the idea. With their support, Meade went to town—literally. She spent a day knocking on doors of local businesses, asking if they’d be willing to host students who just needed to finish their homework with an internet connection.

Not a single person turned her down, she says. More than a dozen businesses—coffee shops, restaurants, bakeries, bookstores, libraries and grocery stores, to name a few—opened their doors to students.

(Below is a map showing where students in Winterset can access free Wi-Fi. Yellow markers indicate a local business. Black markers indicate a Winterset school building.)

Next, she found a graphic design agency that created and printed window decals for the businesses to display for students. The decal features Winterset’s logo and school colors—black and yellow—and says “Wi-Fi” in big, bold letters.

“Within two weeks, we had the project up and running,” Meade says. The district blasted emails to students, parents and teachers letting them know that this option was available now. “We said, ‘Don’t let this be an excuse—not having Wi-Fi at home,’” she recalls. “‘Because guess what? We have all of these businesses in town that are willing to let you come in.’”

That was about a year ago, in October 2017. Since then, she says she’s received no calls from any of the businesses saying that students were disruptive or abusing their privileges. And, more importantly, she says, “I have had no parents complain or share with me that their kids don’t have access at home.” She believes that’s a direct result of the partnerships with local businesses, as the free and reduced lunch rate in the district hasn’t changed and internet service providers haven’t offered any new discounts to Winterset residents in the last year.

Marcia Sparks, the owner of The Bakery Unlimited, one of the local establishments that partners with Winterset schools, says she was happy to offer up her space to students. “I’m always wanting to encourage the kids,” Sparks tells EdSurge. “I have a lot of people who use their computers in here. Those kids are more than welcome to do it, too, as far as I’m concerned.”

Meade believes that what she has done in Winterset could easily be replicated all over the country—even in larger districts, big cities and other places that may not be quite as Rockwell-esque.

She previously worked at a district in Mesa, Ariz., with more than 70,000 students, and she says she could see the program being successful there. “We still had strip malls in walking distance of kids, and you’ve still got your small neighborhoods. You know the places where people can gather.”

At least one other district, Clarke County School District in Athens, Ga., has adopted its own version of this program, called the “Free Wi-Fi Directory” for students. Twenty-two businesses in Athens participate in the program, according to the district’s website, including an insurance company, a hotel and the nearby Wal-Mart.

Regardless of district size or town population, Meade says some factors can certainly be an advantage in launching this kind of program.

“It helps if you know what the purpose is, what the parameters are and have a good relationship with the local businesses,” Meade says. “It’s one more way, at no cost to them, that they can support the school.”

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