Remote Learning: The Student Connection

This is one in a series of blogs highlighting strategies to address equity during this unprecedented time of remote learning. Our own John Wachen and Mark Johnson identified these strategies through an analysis of state level remote learning policies based on critical aspects of equitable learning drawn from literature on education in remote contexts.  Their report defines four broad dimensions.  This blog brings a lens to the first of these dimensions, “Access to technology.” At a national level, 15% of household with school age children do not have access to the Internet. The 1Million Project has sought to ensure that all students in Chicago have access. For this blog post, Claire Cronin sat down to talk with some key players behind the 1Million Project initiative in Chicago Public Schools: Katrina Miller, Computer Science Technology Lead; Jonathan Carter II, 1Million Project Assistant Manager; and Jose Radilla, College Intern. 

When the 1Million Project came to Chicago Public Schools (CPS) ahead of the 2017-2018 school year, no one could have imagined how it would help to alleviate the crisis that would begin a few years later, in March 2020. The initiative was introduced as a means to close the “homework gap”—the digital divide between those who have ready access to devices and the Internet, and those who do not—by providing thousands of low-income students with access to an at-home internet connection. 

Students at Carver Military Academy after receiving their devices in October 2019

Sprint debuted the 1Million Project Foundation initiative in 2017 to help students across the country by giving them a mobile device—which can be used as a personal hotspot—and free high-speed Internet access. Jonathan Carter II, the 1Million Project Assistant Manager, has been working with the project since it first came to CPS. Recognizing the great need for creating equal access to technology within the district, Carter II said that Sprint reached out to help, “They saw a need and we understood that need because we were the boots on the ground.” 

A need that became much greater in the Spring of 2020 with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and unexpected transition to remote learning. All of a sudden, students didn’t just need the Internet to complete their homework and out-of-class activities, but now they needed it to participate in all of their schooling. 

The Learning Partnership’s report notes that students’ and families’ ability to access devices and the Internet is vital to creating an equitable remote learning experience.  As Carter II pointed out,

“The pandemic really leveled the playing field and it didn’t matter what school you were at.” He said that the 1Million Project team made sure they addressed schools at every income level, and that the location did not matter. “Our main focus was that we hit every type of school – it was nothing about how much money that school was bringing in, but whether a student is able to do their work at home.” 

Carter II emphasized how the pandemic highlighted the importance of never assuming what a child’s home life is like, and that the ability to come to school should never be taken for granted.

Two students working at Carver Military Academy with their new devices in October 2019

Carter II said a past role of his, where he helped students with technology and taught them to take computers apart and put them back together, prepared him for teaching students how to use the devices and technology distributed by the 1Million Project. “I enjoy helping students and people who need help,” Carter II said, “I know what it is to be in a certain situation where you can’t help yourself.” 

For Katrina Miller, the Computer Science Technology Lead who has been with the project since April 2019, and with Chicago Public Schools since 2005, also said the job, for her, is about supporting students. 

“You have to love your students and want to see them grow and do better,” Miller said, “It’s the kids, it’s about putting kids first.” 

Students at Clemente High School after receiving their devices

While Miller said that the beginning of the pandemic and switch to remote learning did not change the team’s responsibilities, the workload increased, and new concerns surfaced.

“I had to figure out two plans,” Miller explained, “How to make sure we were safe while preparing the devices, and then how to actually get the devices distributed to schools.”

She described how, in pre-pandemic times, the team would make a full, exciting day out of distributing the devices to students at a school. A school is selected to be part of the 1Million Project if more than 80% of its students are recipients of free or reduced lunch, and then specific students are identified and paired with a device—with consent of their parents or guardians.

Group of students holding new phone boxes and smiling
Clemente High School student receiving her device at a distribution day

Jose Radilla, the college intern for the 1Million Project, explained that there are cases where all students at a school are recipients of a device; other times, certain grade levels, or individual students who have expressed interest, are the only recipients at a school. 

Radilla said that the pandemic proved the need for this program, “We can inform people, but until something like a pandemic happens, we might not take the time to get the wheels moving.” 

Amazingly this initiative made it possible to distribute around 30,000 devices to students throughout the city to enable access to the Internet at a time when an internet connection became even more valuable than ever. This support of internet solutions continued even as T-Mobile and Sprint merged in April of 2020. The new T-Mobile is planning on building off the success of the 1Million Project to help eradicate the homework gap for millions of kids around the country with even more initiatives beginning later this year. 

If a CPS student is still in need of assistance, Carter II says that they just need to reach out.

“We’re always willing and ready to help a student out,” he expressed. “At the end of the day, our focus and mindset should always be the students because we were once students ourselves, and I do feel like sometimes we forget that.”

If students or families want to get in touch, the team can be contacted at cs4all1million@cps.edu.

For more in this series, read our blog posts, “Remote Learning: What’s a Parent to Do?” and “National Special Education Day: Equity In Remote Learning For Diverse Learners

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