Seattle’s reputation as a city rich in technology is partly true. According to a City of Seattle study, some 95 percent of residents have internet access where they live, an increase of 10 percent since 2014, and rising rates of smartphone ownership mean that 98 percent of households have at least one internet-connected device.
But for students in underserved communities, the digital divide is still a daily reality and an obstacle. The city reports that residents in Seattle’s lower-income neighborhoods are from five to seven times more likely to lack adequate internet access at home. Nationwide, the digital divide prevents one in five high school students from completing homework, according to a Pew Research report. The study found that teens from the lowest-income households were more than two and a half times more likely to lack a reliable computer at home; more than twice as likely to rely on public Wi-Fi to complete homework; and 10 percent of them were more likely to use their smartphone to complete homework, compared to their wealthier peers.
That’s a problem for students and families, one that increasing rates of phone ownership won’t fix. “Until you break down the systems that were designed without input from women and people of color, there is no digital equity, so we’re not close to achieving it,” says Trish Dziko, co-founder and executive director of Seattle’s Technology Access Foundation.
As everything from school information to job interviews to health records moves online, families with less access to technology face a widening opportunity gap, notes David Keyes, the digital equity manager for the City of Seattle. “Everything from navigating the school system to getting a good job to viewing your health records depends on digital access and literacy.”
On that front, local partnerships, politicians and community organizations are working to extend digital opportunity and access to all, especially to underserved, underrepresented students, youths of color and residents living in lower-income neighborhoods.
4 ways to get involved in narrowing the digital divide
- Donate a device or purchase a refurbished one at InterConnection Seattle, an organization that works with the City of Seattle to distribute laptops to residents through community and school programs.
- Become a digital literacy volunteer with Seattle’s International Rescue Committee.
- Lobby your district superintendent to bring STEMbyTAF to your school community.
- Learn more about Sen. Patty Murray’s Digital Equity Act of 2019, aimed at increasing digital opportunity in Washington.
Building community pathways
Public libraries have long provided computer and internet access for cardholders. In partnership with the City of Seattle, Seattle Public Libraries has stepped up recent digital inclusion efforts, offering mobile Wi-Fi hot spots that can provide community centers or temporary housing encampments with internet access, laptops and hot spots on loan, and digital skills classes.
“Libraries are a critical piece of this work, but they’re not the only places people go,” notes Keyes. Digital literacy courses offered by community organizations like the Somali Family Safety Task Force, Helping Link and Literacy Source support skill building with increased focus on residents whose primary language is not English.
“Helping Link helps Vietnamese families build digital literacy to navigate their schools’ systems, online and offline,” says Keyes. “Literacy Source has increased their capacity to teach digital skills, and they’ve been very thoughtful about helping residents build digital literacy.”
Expanding educational opportunities
A social entrepreneur, Dziko drew on her high-tech background to establish the Technology Access Foundation (TAF) in 1996. By increasing access to quality STEM education for students of color, TAF “creates schools where kids want to learn and teachers want to teach,” says Dziko.
Its flagship school is TAF@Saghalie, a sixth- through 12th-grade neighborhood choice school in Federal Way that embodies TAF’s vision of a school where every student can share in the region’s rich digital opportunities while receiving a solid education in science, technology, engineering and math. “We’re increasing the rigor that every kid gets and not tracking kids based on perceived ability, [which] tends to be based on race, gender and class,” she explains.
“Our pedagogy is interdisciplinary, project-based learning, and college and career readiness with technology and STEM integration. It all hinges around equity and that every kid’s culture is represented in the content,” Dziko says. “It is a full school model where all kids are seen and understood.”
Working closely with administrators, teachers and instructional coaches over a five-year process, TAF transforms schools with its STEMbyTAF curriculum. As Tacoma’s Boze Elementary School nears the end of its five-year school transformation process, TAF is preparing to work with three more schools in 2019–2020: Roosevelt Elementary School in Tacoma, and Brigadoon Elementary School and Olympic View Elementary School, both in Federal Way.
Even in a high-tech city like Seattle, we do have these divide issues.
“We’re working with Seattle Public Schools to bring the model to Washington Middle School in September 2020,” Dziko adds.
Before schools can teach technology skills effectively, educators need to get on the same page in terms of what STEM education is. “In some places, it’s been reduced to ‘Let’s get everyone coding,’” Dziko notes. “The STEMbyTAF model is about using STEM skills to ideate, solve problems and express ideas — and that includes using arts, humanities, communications and writing.”
Seattle Public Schools has been supportive of this work, says Keyes, donating more than 1,000 laptops to local students and working on a new program to create a stronger pathway to information-technology careers for youths. “Even in a high-tech city like Seattle, we do have these divide issues,” Keyes says. “Making progress is going to take individuals, companies and organizations all stepping up together.”