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One town’s quest to join tech revolution – and what it says about digital inequality

Greeley, Colo., offers a lens into how wide the digital divide in the US has become, how much it is contributing to a two-tiered society, and, perhaps most important, whether it can be bridged.

Inside a high-ceilinged library at Northridge High School here, seniors are typing on 16-year-old laptops donated by a local Rotary Club. Some of the computers are missing keys. Others are cracked. Many have already broken down multiple times.

It is “college day,” and the students in this old farming town 60 miles north of Denver are applying to a handful of state universities and community colleges, their transcripts printed out for quick review. Most hope to eventually land tech-related jobs. But many have no computers at home. And their cash-strapped school district has struggled to provide them with even the most basic digital tools.

School leaders have solicited donations from local manufacturing plants, energy firms, even the federal government. In November, the town put a referendum on the ballot asking voters to approve a tax increase to funnel $4.2 million into schoolwide technology-related improvements.

The measure failed. But this town’s dauntless mayor, Tom Norton, a retired civil engineer, says there are plans to try again later this year.

“We’re doing everything we can,” says Mr. Norton, as the seniors in the library close their balky laptops and head to class. “They can’t wait until they’re 30 years old. They have to learn early.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
‘They can't wait until they're 30 years old. They have to learn [technology skills] early.' –Tom Norton, mayor of Greeley, Colo.

In wealthy school districts around the country, parents and teachers talk often about keeping computer use to a minimum. The students live in homes with multiple laptops, iPads, tablets, iPhones – iEverything. The adults worry about the students’ excessive time spent online, about the distractions of the virtual world replacing interaction with the real world.

But for hundreds of poor districts across the United States, especially in modernizing agricultural communities like Greeley, the struggle is entirely different. It’s about helping students with limited tech skills be prepared for a global economy that is becoming increasingly digitized. Yet these are often the districts with the fewest resources, the districts flailing to move somehow beyond the era of the floppy disk.

Greeley, flat and grassy, is a modest city set on the Great Plains less than an hour from the serrated edge of the Rockies. Carpeted with sugar beet farms and cattle ranches, dotted with natural gas fields and a handful of large manufacturing plants, it is a sliver of America that is often forgotten in the nation’s booming high-tech corridors: one that is struggling to raise young people who will join, rather than be co-opted by, the wired world burgeoning around it.

Donald Trump won 57 percent of the county vote here. Migrant workers abound, and a local meatpacking plant has hired hundreds of refugees from Somalia, Myanmar (Burma), and Sudan. One in 5 residents lives below the poverty level, often in a home without high-speed internet service.

Greeley offers a lens into how wide the digital divide in the US has become, how much it is contributing to a two-tiered society, and, perhaps most important, whether it can be bridged – something that will be crucial to keeping the country competitive in the global economy of tomorrow. 

On a recent afternoon inside a first-floor computer lab at Northridge High, efforts to bolster the students’ cyber prowess are on display. The school overlooks plush sand-colored condos and a sprawling golf course community that has drawn wealthier families to the area. But many students live in threadbare mobile homes and modest, low-slung dwellings on the edge of town.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Many students in the agricultural region – which has attracted a lot of migrant workers and refugees from Somalia, Myanmar (Burma), and Sudan – live in modest trailer parks. One in 5 residents lives below the poverty level.

Lanetta Cervantes, a loquacious senior with straight dark hair, is perched in front of a desktop computer, designing a 3,888-square-foot home. She uses a software program popular among architects and designers.

“I’m experimenting with what I like and don’t like,” she says, pointing out the raised ceilings and solar panel siding on her virtual home. “I may need to know how to use this at some point, and I don’t want to go to college or to a job totally clueless.”  

Nearby, a group of seniors exhibit souvenirs they designed and fabricated a week earlier, using a computer-assisted drafting program and the lab’s 3-D printer. They had been asked to fashion an advertising campaign for their school’s sports teams, the Wolverines. The end result: tiny plastic claws their friends can paint and attach to key chains.

The students are all in a science and engineering program, one of 12 career tracks designed by the 21,878-student district that encompasses Greeley and nearby Evans, a small river town with a growing Hispanic population. The students learn how to use industry-approved software programs and are often granted paid internships at local design firms and research labs, and Greeley’s planning and development departments. They also take field trips to area manufacturing firms.

For many, the so-called digital divide is a daily struggle, adding a sometimes embarrassing and often frustrating layer of complexity to high school life. Junior Emily Juarez, the daughter of a dairy worker from Mexico, arrives at school early to type English papers she has handwritten at home and finish up PowerPoint presentations that are now regularly required of students here and across the country. Like many students in the district, she has no access to the internet at home.

“There are a lot of kids who really need this,” she says of the school’s technology offerings.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Teacher Mallory Mativi's looks over her seventh grade students' shoulders during language arts class at Bella Romero Academy of Applied Technology in Greeley, Colo.


District teachers such as Mallory Mattivi agree. She says she is deeply committed to computer-assisted teaching because it gives students with limited tech experience exposure to digital tools. It also allows her to teach students who arrive in her classroom with vastly different skill levels. Seventy-five different languages are spoken in the schools, and many of the refugees who populate classrooms haven’t been formally educated in years.

“I could never go back to the old model,” says Ms. Mattivi, whose seventh-grade English students discuss articles about the environment, civic life, and American history after using online literacy programs that provide similar material at different reading levels.

But computers are expensive. The district has already spent more than $3 million since 2011 on tablets, laptops, software programs, fiber optic wiring, and engineers to oversee all the instructional technology.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Seventh grade students use computers in Mallory Mativi's language arts class at Bella Romero Academy of Applied Technology in Greeley, Colo. The academy has classes from K through 8th grade on two campuses. The school district is working hard to supply computers to students without a big tax base to help with funding.

Colorado is famously parsimonious with its school district funding. A robust taxpayers’ rights movement has led to a deep divide between schools that are flush with money and those with scuffed gym floors, modest cafeterias, and ill-equipped computer labs.

In 1992, voters amended the state constitution to cap tax revenue, which limited how much money the state can collect and the amount of local tax dollars school districts can raise. A constitutional amendment passed in 2000 was meant to correct some of that, but it has not been fully implemented. And a state push to fund schools more equitably with another tax measure failed in 2013.

These days, school districts make up for shortfalls by going directly to voters. Wealthier communities often either float bond issues, pass local tax increases, or engage in extensive private fundraising. Poorer districts labor to raise money any way they can – often unsuccessfully.

Nearby Denver, plush with higher-priced real estate and students with far greater familiarity with technology at home, has better-funded schools. It spends more than $9,000 per student annually compared with Greeley, which spends just over $7,000, even though 65 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged and 25 percent are learning English for the first time. The national average is about $12,000 per student.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
An energy rig is visible in the distance behind a housing complex as students walk by in Greeley, Colo. The area 60 miles north of Denver is dotted with natural gas fields, sugar beet farms, and cattle ranches.

Ironically, parents in wealthier districts around the country often fret about the overabundance of technology in their children’s lives. They hold discussions about internet addiction and host watch nights for documentaries such as last year’s “Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age,” which outlines the potential perils of extreme computer use.

“Many parents are obsessed with excessive screen time,” says Delaney Ruston, a physician and filmmaker who created the documentary.   
It’s perhaps not surprising. Extra money has allowed these wealthier districts to invest heavily in Chromebooks and iPads, state-of-the-art robotics programs, computerized blackboards, and high-end 3-D printers. Many now have a laptop for every student. And when the young people go home, electronic devices inhabit every countertop and bed stand.

But here in Greeley, where the district is still more than 3,000 laptops and $1 million away from a 1-to-1 ratio of computers to students in the high school alone, such worry can feel like an extravagance. “We’re envious,” says school board member Doug Lidiak. “We would love to have that problem.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
An elementary school student with chipped fingernail polish uses a computer at Bella Romero Academy of Applied Technology.

Research about the effect of technology on children’s lives is, in fact, mixed. At least one Duke University study suggested that the arrival of broadband service in North Carolina between 2000 and 2005 correlated with a small, but significant dip in reading and math scores for fifth- through eighth-grade students. Professors Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd, who studied more than 150,000 students, found that the addition of after-school tech-related activities – playing games online and emailing – had served to “crowd out” homework time.

Other research, such as a 2014 study of 105 preteens conducted by psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggested that access to online devices may be eroding young people’s social skills.

Still, technology can bring widespread benefits as well. A 2007 Texas State University study, published in the Journal of Educational Computing Research, found that when students were presented with high-quality online math instruction they did better on tests than those taught in a more traditional way.   

Other research indicates that even limited amounts of tech exposure can make students aware of lucrative career options they didn’t know much about before. In 2012, for instance, researchers found that only 26 percent of teens attending a science and technology camp wanted to become chemical engineers. After the camp, 63 percent reported an interest in the field.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
‘I may need to know how to use this [architectural software] at some point, and i don't want to go to college or to a job totally clueless.' – Lanetta Cervantes, a senior at Northridge High School in Greeley, Colo.

By all accounts, developing technological skills will continue to be crucial in an increasingly digital world. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently found that adults with no tech experience reported a 15 percent lower labor participation rate and received 6 percent lower salaries than adults who had at least some experience.

Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking, a technology advocacy group, calls the digital divide in the US “the civil rights issue” of our time. Perhaps more worrisome, the gap doesn’t seem to be narrowing. In a 2016 survey, the consortium discovered that nearly 20 percent of school leaders identified something as simple as reliable Wi-Fi service as still an issue for their institutions.

Greeley certainly has not given up on plugging into the future. Consider the efforts of Mayor Norton alone. A barrel-chested man with a ready grin, he has turned the hunt for technology into a personal crusade.

With his thick Western drawl and distinct swagger, he could, if wearing a Stetson, look right at home driving cattle on the high plains. But, in fact, he spent eight years as the director of the Colorado Department of Transportation and another two dozen years building his own civil engineering firms in Greeley, which is one reason he feels so passionate about exposing the next generation to the right technologies. When Norton won reelection to a fourth term last fall, he donated the remaining $20,000 in his campaign coffers to Northridge High School.

Nor is he the only one on a digital crusade. When local companies buy new desktop computers, leave the county, or relocate offices, school officials are quick to knock on their doors, asking for any discarded technology. Similarly, when the Success Foundation, the district’s fundraising arm, visits with local businesses, it asks them to donate to tech initiatives. The foundation has already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for classroom iPads, digital audiobooks, and high-tech wiring.

The laptops at Bella Romero Academy, a struggling school for Grades K through 8 on the outskirts of town, were mostly purchased through a $300,000 donation from a local builder. At Meeker Elementary, seven-year-old computers were donated by a local branch of the US Social Security Administration and the University of Colorado Boulder.

“We literally dumpster dive for technology,” says Deagan Andrew, director of instructional technology for the Greeley-Evans School District.  
In 2014, the district solicited grant money from the federal government to install fiber optic networking that has allowed for better internet connections. It also invited two national ed-tech think tanks to help the district redesign classrooms, revamp its curriculum, and purchase hardware and software more cheaply.

District officials say the decision to invest heavily in technology came mostly out of desperation. A handful of the district’s 25 schools are on a state watch list for poor performance, and the increasing influx of students without a strong command of English has challenged teachers.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A fourth grade Muslim student, originally from Somalia, works independently on a computer at Bella Romero Academy of Applied Technology in Greeley, Colo.

Mr. Andrew says the district, eager for solutions, began testing new classroom models in 2013, settling on the use of software programs to target student levels for reading and math. They are coupling the initiative with more small-group instruction.

“When they began this journey, they began it as a faith walk,” says John Branam, an education consultant, who spent 2-1/2 years working with the district as a partner with The Learning Accelerator, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit. “They believed it would lead to better outcomes for kids.”

With less than half of the district’s classrooms stocked with enough laptops for every student, it’s still not clear how successful the approach will be. But district officials point to progress recently made in a pilot program at Bella Romero, where more than half of third-graders were reading below grade level in 2014. The state has steadily increased its academic rating of the school in recent years, indicating that its students are improving more quickly than those at similarly challenged schools.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Third grade students at Meeker Elementary school use a computer to learn math in Greeley, Colo.

Not all parents have welcomed the embrace of the technology revolution. On one recent day, inside a second-grade classroom at Meeker Elementary, a half-dozen children wearing headphones sit in front of Chromebooks reading stories using a popular software program known as i-Ready. The program tailors online books to individual student levels. One girl is reading “Jack and the Cornstalk.” Another scans information about Jackie Robinson’s early baseball career and answers questions to determine whether she can tell the difference between “fact” and “opinion.”

The teacher, Kim Hoff-Gebhardt, works with a small group on the rug, reading a short poem about a dog and its owner.  

“Crab and grab – does that rhyme?” she asks the group.
“Yes,” says one boy.
“Good job, buddy,” she replies.   

Parents have been invited to sit in on the class, before joining their children in the gym for a Thanksgiving meal. Antone Gray, a truck loader at FedEx, watches his son Donovan play an online game. It is a reward for progress made earlier in the day. Mr. Gray is nostalgic for the time when tattered paperbacks, not headphones and laptops, populated classrooms.

“I didn’t grow up with a lot of technology,” he says dismissively. “I grew up old school.”

Rachel Erickson, sitting nearby with her son, Chase, offers a different view. As Chase hears a word in his headphones, he clicks on the corresponding word when it flashes on his computer screen. It is part of a vocabulary game. Ms. Erickson believes the use of computers in schools is essential. As a supervisor at the county courthouse in Greeley, she sees how more and more records are being put online every day.

“The more [technology exposure] they get at school, the better they will be,” she says. “Tech is where it’s at.”

Getting enough laptops and fiber optic cables, though, won’t be easy. School administrators hope to eventually give every student in the district a computer.

They also want to rewire networks and replace hundreds of existing devices.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A fourth grade student helps his classmate to learn math on a computer at Bella Romero Academy of Applied Technology in Greeley, Colo.

This is why proponents of more technology in the schools pushed so passionately for the ballot initiative last fall that would have funded many of the changes. The district had orchestrated carefully crafted radio and billboard ads, using the voices of teachers, principals, and business leaders. Advocates campaigned door-to-door and distributed handouts detailing how much instruction in the 21st century costs: $23,000 to give a building wireless access, $6,000 monthly to give it dedicated internet access, $300 for every computer. The district held a town hall meeting by phone; 12,000 people listened in.

Still, many people here, like in communities across the country, are leery of local institutions reaching into their pockets for more money. Greeley’s median household income is a modest $55,277. A growing number of residents are senior citizens, some of whom view computers as a luxury. At least some residents resent the recent influx of immigrant children.  

In the end, the referendum lost by 1,400 votes, while similar school-funding initiatives passed in nearby Denver and Cherry Creek. District officials and political leaders here promise to revive the proposal this year. They believe the future of their children – and the country – hinges on it.
“We need this,” says Norton, “because every single kid should graduate from this district with a plan for career or college. A real plan.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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