How one city closed the digital divide for nearly all students
OAKLAND, Calif. — After schools went remote in 2020, Jessica Ramos spent hours that spring and summer sitting on a bench in front of her local Oakland Public Library branch in the vibrant and diverse Dimond District. Ramos would connect to the library’s Wi-Fi — sometimes on her cellphone, sometimes using her family’s only laptop — to complete assignments and submit essays or tests for her classes at Skyline High School.
Ramos, used to texting quickly, was able to do simple assignments online, so at first her schoolwork was very easy. Then came the five-page papers for her two AP classes. “It was a hassle,” she said. “I was like, this is not for me.”
Ramos’ parents promised to buy her a laptop eventually, but bills mounted and it wasn’t in the family’s budget. Ramos knew there were many kids like her, eager to keep up with school but lacking the technology to do so. To her, it was “heartbreaking.”
“We have this huge digital divide that’s making it hard for [students] to get their education,” she said.
At the start of the pandemic, only 12 percent of low-income students, and 25 percent of all students, in Oakland’s public schools had devices at home and a strong internet connection. David Silver, the director of education for the mayor’s office, said people talked about the digital divide, but there had never been enough energy to tackle it. Once the pandemic hit, suddenly everyone was paying attention, said Silver, a former Oakland public school teacher and principal.
“You don’t have a computer, you don’t have internet, you can’t even access distance learning,” Silver said. “The 50,000 kids that are in Oakland public schools cannot actually go to school if they don’t have internet and computers. We need to change that.”
Now, two years into the pandemic, Oakland has been able to connect 98 percent of the students in the district. As of February, the city had provided nearly 36,000 laptops and more than 11,500 hot spots to low-income public school students. While some students remain unconnected, Oakland’s effort has emerged as an example of how to tackle a citywide digital divide.
“We were using the crisis as an opportunity to address a moral wrong that needs to be changed forever, not just during the pandemic,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said. “We can’t afford not to.”
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City leaders, including Mayor Schaaf, say a partnership among the district, the mayor’s office, the Oakland Public Education Fund, the nonprofit Tech Exchange, Oakland Promise and other community-based organizations is behind Oakland’s success. Oakland’s partnership, known as #OaklandUndivided, launched in May 2020. The ambitious goal: close the city’s digital divide for good by providing all K-12 public school students in Oakland with a computer they could keep, a reliable internet connection and ongoing, multicultural tech support in languages families use.
“Each of these partners were doing their individual work, but we had never been working together,” Mayor Schaaf said. “That’s what Covid inspired us to do to really accelerate — not just having computers be at schools, but having them in the homes. Not just so students could keep learning during the shutdown, but so that the whole family had access to information and resources.”
“We [didn’t] want this to be a Band-Aid fix,” said Jordan Mickens, a Leadership for Educational Equity public policy fellow who served as #OaklandUndivided’s project manager until August 2021.
Oakland has been able to connect 98 percent of the students in the district.
While most schools across the country are fully back in person, students continue to struggle to complete homework assignments or participate in remote learning because they lack adequate internet service and access to a computer at home — a phenomenon commonly referred to as the “homework gap.” According to a 2021 report from the think tank New America, 1 in 8 children from low-income families don’t have a computer at home, while 1 in 7 lack access to broadband internet.
“The homework gap isn’t new. It’s just been exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Rebeca Shackleford, the director of federal government relations at All4Ed, an education advocacy nonprofit. “There’s kids who sit in McDonald’s parking lots to be able to do their homework, and that’s pretty tragic.”
People have to remember “the pandemic isn’t over,” she said. Disruptions will continue when students have to quarantine after classmates test positive for Covid-19. Natural disasters, exacerbated by climate change, are also shuttering schools with more frequency. When schools are closed, she said, students “still have to do their schoolwork; they still need access to the internet at home.”
efore the pandemic, the digital divide was often considered a rural problem. But the chaotic effort to get students online during Covid school closures made clear the issue affects Americans living in all kinds of places. A recent study from EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that works with school districts to help close the digital divide, found that affordability was the largest contributing factor.
Though only about 40 miles north of Silicon Valley, home to technology giants such as Google and Apple, Oakland was deeply underconnected when the pandemic shuttered its schools. When the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) shut down, its 83 district-run schools and 33 charter schools served more than 49,000 students. Kyla Johnson-Trammell, Oakland’s superintendent, said the first couple of months of the pandemic were a scramble.
“It was all hands on deck. We piecemealed as much as we could in March and April 2020,” she said. Still, she added, there were “just so many stories of kids using their cellphones to complete assignments, to research, or having to figure out how to get to public libraries in order to access devices.”
The district handed out its existing stockpile of loaner devices and hot spots to as many students as possible, said Preston Thomas, OUSD’s chief systems and services officer.
Many of the devices were already 4 to 5 years old. Because the district had been under significant financial pressures for the five years prior to the pandemic, “we hadn’t really invested in our infrastructure around technology,” Thomas said.
The district lacked a system for tracking how many students weren’t logging on to classes for lack of a working computer, tablet or internet connection at home. “We didn’t even have infrastructure on tracking devices,” Thomas said. The district relied on individual schools to call families, while its department of research, assessment and data conducted surveys at individual school sites to find out whether families had an internet connection and computer access.
“Nothing was coordinated,” Thomas said. “Everybody was on the ground doing their absolute best to make sure that kids had access to technology, but it was piecemeal.”
Just before the pandemic, OUSD had begun to identify tech leads at each school, mostly teachers with technology know-how. Once the pandemic hit, the district created the position of distance learning lead, tasked with making sure all students had computers and hot spots. It helped, Thomas said, that these educators “had technological understanding at their school sites, had the ear of teachers at the school site, and could communicate for their community.”
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Jen Bender is an instructional teacher leader and technology coordinator at Castlemont High School, in a historically under-resourced neighborhood in East Oakland. Helping the school with its technology needs had been only a small part of her job before the pandemic. In April 2020, Bender stepped in as the school’s distance learning lead, and finding devices for students became her full-time role.
Bender was fortunate in that many Castlemont students already had school devices when the pandemic hit. Still, by the end of that April, she had handed out every last device on campus, even hunting down lost Chromebooks in the process, and some students, including new immigrant students, were still empty-handed.
In the beginning, schools asked students to come get a device if they didn’t have one. But public transportation was disrupted as the state began to shelter in place, and some students and parents had no way to get to school. Other students’ family members were essential workers who couldn’t make it to school during the school day. The newcomers who didn’t speak English were the hardest to reach.
“We realized we had to start really targeting families,” Bender said. The district pulled in community workers who spoke Spanish and Mam, a Mayan language, and “had them make individual phone calls to families to get them to come in and pick up those devices.”
Bender said calling didn’t always help, especially if a family was moving or in temporary housing. School leaders sent teachers and staff members with computers to students’ homes. Even then, Bender said, they had “very little success, because addresses had shifted.”
As May arrived, district administrators realized that relying on the distance learning leads to understand what was happening on the ground was insufficient, Thomas said. “We didn’t have a centralized way to track devices for students,” he said. “Like, we had no idea. Every school had their individual Google spreadsheet, and there wasn’t a unifying place where any of us could look.”
“This is truly a once-in-a-generation moment to close the digital divide and one that has united our city.”
Patrick Messac, #OaklandUndivided project manager
District leaders knew they couldn’t confront a problem as massive as the digital divide in Oakland on their own; they were already stretched thin addressing students’ other basic needs, including rising food insecurity.
Johnson-Trammell, the superintendent, and Mayor Schaaf had several conversations about how to tackle technology access and connectivity. As the pandemic unfolded, city officials also saw how deeply the lack of technology access impacted all of Oakland. Almost every resource and piece of information about Covid-19, including where to get food and how to apply for unemployment benefits, was being provided digitally.
“All the information was on the internet. And I imagined, for a minute, what a mother must feel like who didn’t have an internet connection or a computer,” Mayor Schaaf said. “It was so much bigger than just education. It was literally survival for Oakland families. Technology was the lifeline to information.”
Jordan Mickens, who spent his first year as a teacher at Castlemont High School in 2014, said he vividly remembers the technology divide his students faced compared with those in the wealthy areas surrounding Oakland. In 2017, he left teaching to work in education technology at Clever, a digital platform for schools. But soon after the pandemic started, the crisis in schools drew him back to working more directly to support students in Oakland, and he became a public policy fellow on the mayor’s education team.
Silver and Thomas had been working to help Johnson-Trammell and Mayor Schaaf come up with an idea for getting a better handle on the communities left out of remote learning: by tapping into the relationships the city and the school district had with various community-based nonprofits already providing direct services in the neighborhoods they needed to reach. Mickens jumped at the opportunity to come on board when the city hired him to run the new #OaklandUndivided initiative to close the digital divide in June 2020.
The first thing the group did, Mickens said, was to start tracking the number of public school students in Oakland who already had a device and internet service, and those who didn’t. In August 2020, they launched a “Tech Check” survey to collect that data. The new survey was created to be more comprehensive than the initial individual school-led surveys, and made a point of not relying on yes or no questions. The survey asked families if all students at home had devices of their own; whether those devices were loans from a school or family-owned; and whether the family was connected to the internet and, if so, how: via broadband, mobile phone or otherwise.
By May 2021, the campaign had accounted for roughly 70 percent of all Oakland public school students through the survey. Going in, the #OaklandUndivided team had anticipated about 25,000 students would need devices, internet or both, based on the earlier school surveys and census data. The Tech Check survey “opened our eyes,” Mickens said.
Based on the survey results, #OaklandUndivided estimated that 75 percent of K-12 public school students, or almost 40,000, were either disconnected or underconnected, with inadequate internet access.
As another part of the information-gathering effort, #OaklandUndivided tapped into data from the online learning platforms schools were using — Google Classroom and Clever — to see which students were logging in through a computer or mobile phone to access online resources. By October 2020, the district had created a public-facing tech access dashboard to track student access to computers and broadband, and also make the campaign’s effort more transparent to the community and funders, according to Mickens.
Meanwhile, the #OaklandUndivided leadership team, made up of staff employed by multiple agencies in the partnership, met weekly and launched a fundraising campaign with a goal of $12.5 million to provide the initial devices and hot spots. The campaign was able to bring in big donors like Twitter’s co-founder and then CEO Jack Dorsey, who pledged $10 million to help meet the goal. As funding came in, the next step was to buy the Chromebooks and hot spots. There the campaign relied on Tech Exchange, an Oakland-based nonprofit that has been working on closing the city’s digital divide for more than two decades.
The organization has a warehouse and a public-facing Tech Hub that provides residents with free tech support and computer and digital literacy training, as well as refurbishment services. It also offers training on site at public housing complexes. Tech Exchange trains people from the surrounding communities; hires locals to provide its tech services; and hosts interns from Oakland high schools, who sometimes come back to work for the organization.
Tech Exchange’s role was to put in orders for the devices and get the equipment ready for students. By March 16, 2021 — a year after school closures in Oakland — the partnership had handed out 25,000 Chromebooks to low-income students.
Mickens said distributing the devices — which students could keep permanently — was an experience he will never forget. When he taught at Castlemont in 2014, the school had only one Chromebook cart. “To go from that, to now giving every student their own computer … was incredible to be a part of,” he said.
Tech Exchange became an essential partner in not only getting the devices, but also providing the “culturally competent” tech support that had been promised as part of the #OaklandUndivided mission. Tech Exchange was the “secret sauce” of the initiative, Mickens said.
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In July 2020, the #OaklandUndivided campaign team brought in more community-based organizations, including the Latino Education Network and the Oakland branch of the NAACP. It also added parent and student liaisons who would have a voice in the leadership of the project. High school students including Jessica Ramos, who was recruited by David Silver, her former principal, were invited as student liaisons to help with engagement efforts.
“Community-based organizations, those folks … really have the relationships [with] the Latino/Latina community, the Yemeni community, the African American community,” Johnson-Trammell said. “Typically, without that level of partnership, it’s hard for us as a district to really make sure we’re getting and serving the needs of the most vulnerable.”
The Oakland Reach, a parent-led advocacy group that works with underserved communities, also joined the partnership. Keta Brown, a co-founder of the group, eventually became co-chair of #OaklandUndivided’s family engagement team. The team got the word out about the new initiative and also helped the coalition identify weak points, including engaging with Black parents.
One of those parents was Bernadette Fenceroy, who has four children in Oakland public schools. Early in the pandemic, they relied on one loaner device and a hot spot that worked sporadically. No one got much learning done, she said.
“It is hard when you have some kids that are on the phone and you can’t get all your information,” Fenceroy said. “And a lot of times [my child] has tutoring. You can’t do it on your phone and have to do it on a laptop or a desktop.”
Fenceroy, who met Brown through the Oakland Reach, had a hard time getting support from her kids’ schools for remote learning during the first year of the pandemic. Brown told her to take the Tech Check survey to see if her family qualified for free devices.
When Fenceroy finally got the call in May 2021 saying her kids’ permanent laptops were ready to be picked up, she almost couldn’t believe it. She took a picture of one device and called Brown: “I think I got it! I think I got the computer.”
Although her kids have devices now, Fenceroy hopes the district and #OaklandUndivided’s members don’t “just drop the ball,” she said. She wants them to stay in touch, make sure the devices are working and let parents know who to call for help if they’re not.
At 10 o’clock on a bright Wednesday morning in May 2021, the blinds were still down at Tech Exchange’s Tech Hub, housed in a small office sandwiched between an apartment complex and an appliance store in Oakland. But inside, Samuel Aristondo, then Tech Exchange’s bilingual program coordinator, and two colleagues were already fixing devices and taking calls for tech support.
Aristondo spent more than an hour on the phone talking with a Spanish-speaking family new to the city, walking them through the Tech Check survey to get their free laptops. After he got off the phone, Aristondo still had a list of 300 to 400 students’ families to call. A majority of the families on the list who still remained unconnected were like the one Aristondo reached: They’d been in the U.S. for only a few weeks. Some weren’t aware their kids could get a free device or, if they had a device, didn’t understand how to log on to Google Classroom or use Zoom.
Aristondo, who is now Tech Hub’s operations manager, understands how hard it can be for some of these families, he said. He grew up in foster care after his parents were deported, and he was a first-generation college student. After he’s finished helping connect families with technology, he always asks them if they know where to get free food and medical help. “It’s more than just tech support,” he said.
“That is the secret of how to get folks connected. It’s not just blanketing devices and internet. It’s social work.”
Seth Hubbert, the former executive director of Tech Exchange
Since the launch of #OaklandUndivided, the Tech Hub office has been busier than usual, helping students, families and even teachers with their #OaklandUndivided devices. Tech Exchange employees have answered more than 10,000 tech support calls from community members in various languages, according to Mickens.
At 16, Kemish Rosales learned how to fix computers as an intern at Tech Exchange. He has worked there since graduating from nearby Fremont High School in 2013 and is now the Tech Hub coordinator for the nonprofit. Seeing kids’ smiles when he gives them computers, or the relief on a worried parent’s face when he answers a question, is why he’s never left this job, he said.
“We know the community, we are part of that community,” Rosales said. “We’re all local. That gives us a better understanding of who we’re helping.”
Tech Exchange employees like Rosales have been key to building trust and reaching out to some of the city’s Spanish-speaking community. Seth Hubbert, the former executive director of Tech Exchange, said it’s been critical to make sure that when partners reach out to families, they do so with language and culture in mind.
“That is the secret of how to get folks connected,” Hubbert said. “It’s not just blanketing devices and internet. It’s social work.”
Parents, especially those who may be undocumented, feel comfortable coming to Tech Exchange for help because “it gives them an ease of mind to [hear] familiar voices and [see] familiar faces,” said Rosales, who is a participant in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
The #OaklandUndivided project has evolved since its inception. With an influx of federal funding available to schools in response to the pandemic, Oakland is using the opportunity to strengthen the program. The district received nearly $130 million from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, in addition to money from the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF), a federal program that has helped schools and libraries provide internet access and connected devices to students and educators during the pandemic.
But those federal funds come with parameters. All the #OaklandUndivided devices handed out in the early days of the pandemic were permanent gifts to families; officials said this was important because a district-managed device has restrictions on its use. A permanent device could be useful to parents trying to access online resources or pursuing their own educations, or it could follow a student on to college.
The federal ESSER and ECF programs require that any device purchased be owned by the school or the district. So, since Aug. 1 of 2021, all the #OaklandUndivided devices going out have been loaners. While the district-lent devices will stay with the student for up to five years, the #OaklandUndivided initiative is still trying to keep its promise of providing permanent devices.
“Recognizing the importance of students owning a computer, we are working with Tech Exchange this year to distribute 4,800 refurbished computers to families who have no owned computer,” said Patrick Messac, the current #OaklandUndivided project manager.
The federal funding itself isn’t permanent. The ECF funding, which was originally set to expire this June, has recently been extended until June 30, 2023. The ESSR funds expire in 2024. Kyleigh Nevis, the devices and operations lead for #OaklandUndivided and OUSD, said the Oakland program is planning for the future and may, for example, switch students on hot-spot plans over to T-Mobile’s Project 10Million, a national program providing free internet to underserved student households.
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As of January, the #OaklandUndivided team said, 35,960 families of public school students had received a Chromebook or hot spot or both. Two percent of low-income students remain unconnected. Getting to them will be hard.
For those still “missing,” the district has made a push this year to focus on what it calls high-priority students: those most at risk and with the greatest need, and whom the program still hasn’t been able to reach. The coalition launched a simplified paper-based Tech Check survey, which is integrated into the back-to-school enrollment process. Students can also fill out the survey in class, to make it easier for families.
Messac said he and others on the team are working with the schools’ data tech leads — as the distance learning leads are now called — to identify those students through updated school rosters and call them.
“We’re just trying to find creative solutions to reach these hardest-to-reach students,” Messac said. As of December, the district had surveyed 6,953 students and handed out an additional 5,835 Chromebooks.
Truancy remains one of the main barriers in reaching out to those missing students, Messac said. Bender, data tech lead at Castlemont High School, has found it challenging to assess the home connectivity of some students because they aren’t coming to school often, or at all. The district’s office of digital equity and OUSD’s tech equity and access action team, created in 2020, have also been working to figure out why these students aren’t able to attend classes and connect them.
The Oakland district is currently facing a financial crisis, and John Sasaki, director of communications for OUSD, said it plans to close two schools. Although #OaklandUndivided is a separate program run in partnership with the city that doesn’t rely entirely on funding from the district, the closings could complicate efforts down the road to reach out to students who aren’t connected yet. Messac said the program is working with the district to ensure that if students at the impacted school sites need digital access, those resources will be provided.
As the #OaklandUndivided project enters a new phase, the focus is on building infrastructure to support citywide connectivity by bringing high-speed broadband internet within five years to the estimated 36,951 unconnected households, whether or not they have children in the schools.
“It’s this goal that we believe is absolutely critical to closing the digital divide for good,” Messac said. Oakland launched OAK Wi-Fi, a broadband program, in late 2020 using $7.7 million from CARES Act funding. The program provides residents living in the most underconnected areas with free access to Wi-Fi across the city. In another local effort, the recently launched Town Link program will also improve access to digital literacy; and Oakland is getting help from the state to expand broadband infrastructure.
“This is truly a once-in-a-generation moment to close the digital divide and one that has united our city,” Messac said. “It’s going to take a lot of effort at the state and federal level as well, but our coalition will be active until we bring broadband to all of our families.”
#OaklandUndivided is also partnering with national nonprofits. In November, EducationSuperHighway announced that Oakland was the inaugural pilot city for its nationwide initiative to close the affordability gap. The partnership is deploying free Wi-Fi in low-income apartment buildings.
“Oakland has done a terrific job creating a public-private partnership to connect their unconnected,” said Evan Marwell, EducationSuperHighway’s CEO. “That was really an effective thing for a lot of students. It hasn’t been a perfect solution, but was a best-in-class effort [from] around the country.”
Jessica Ramos is now a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, which provided her with a new laptop when she started classes. While immersed in college, meeting people and learning more about herself, she still makes time for Oakland. Ramos sits on the #OaklandUndivided leadership committee and helps connect students and their families to both the internet and the program. Watching the project grow “has been amazing,” she said.
Ramos wants other cities to use #OaklandUndivided’s model and expand on it to tackle the homework gap.
“With the pandemic, we all saw what we didn’t want to see. With the digital divide, it’s like one of the things that we think [is] so small, but in reality affects so many people,” said Ramos. “That’s what the pandemic brought, a light to all these problems that need to be solved.”
This story about closing the digital divide was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.