District introduces new technology service for low income students

In the spring of 2015, staff of Princeton Public Schools met to discuss and launch an electronic access program that would allow low-income students across the district to have computers and Internet access from home to complete their school work.

Daniel Scibienski, an English as a Second Language teacher at John Witherspoon Middle School, ran a pilot workshop with parents and students for the new program that started in September 2015.

“Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Bonnie Lehet and Peter Thompson, the Manager of Information Technology for the district, presented to me that the district had struck an agreement with Sprint, and Sprint was operating a program to provide the hotspot devices for students,” Scibienski said.

The program has provided financially qualified students in grades four and up with a laptop and free Internet access from the Sprint Corporation. “[The laptops] expand their learning environment beyond the classroom walls and school day hours to their homes,” said Superintendent Steve Cochrane in a memo entitled MAP: Mobile Access Program.

“We learned about Sprint’s program through JerseyOn,” said Kim McReynolds, the PPS grant program specialist. JerseyOn is a statewide non-profit organization helping schools in New Jersey find offers of affordable Internet access for their students.

According to Scibienski, students in this program in need of electronic access are given three gigabytes of data from Sprint each month to complete their work. The students receive refurbished laptops formerly used by faculty to work from home and are taught how to utilize the features of the devices at school.

“It’s an idea that’s been around for a while … and many schools have the goal of having computers and Internet access for all students and so we are finally implementing that vision,” said Karen Gates, an ESL teacher at PHS who works with many students enrolled in the program.

McReynolds explained that the district looked for students who needed a computer or a Wi-Fi hotspot through a survey sent out last school year. The survey was sent to parents via email and if the district received no reply, they were reached by telephone to gauge their situation. McReynolds approximated around 200 households were contacted by phone.

As the district recognized the need for the program after the survey, soon also utilized teachers by asking them to identify students that may need Internet access or technology. “We have been using word-of-mouth [from teachers] until now, but I spoke with the guidance counselors. Now when you register for a class you will also be asked if you need a computer or if you need Internet access, so you can just tell your counselor and they will get in touch with me,” Gates said.

“So far when we identify students about receiving the hotspot, we ask parents to come to a meeting so they can work with their child and supervise them,” said McReynolds. McReynolds reported that the district has had two meetings so far, both of which have been very high in attendance, and stated that in coming weeks 29 computers will be added to the 50 computers already in use.

“Before [the program], I had to go to the library [to do my work], but sometimes I didn’t always want to go to the library and I got a bad grade on my assignments,” said Elena Zephirin ’19, a student who has used the computer given to her through the program. “It was difficult [to do the homework] because when the teacher put the homework in Google Classroom, I could not do it and I would get a zero on the assignment.”

Gates further reported that around 15 to 20 students at PHS have benefited from the program. “I have heard from the students that it is a fantastic help. You can imagine how difficult it is to watch this video, or write this paper in Google docs, and not have [Internet] access at home,” said Gates.

Many students feel strongly that the program has helped them. “I think the program should continue, because I don’t want other students to go through the troubles I did and get bad grades,” said Zephirin.

Others in the school are also noticing the benefits of the program. “I have had students who at home did not have Internet access and computers, and I worry about equal access. The program is a great benefit. They can participate with their peers on academic and social opportunities,” said Kim Groome, a history teacher at PHS.

“I think it’s not only good for the students themselves but also for teachers. When we know all of our students have access we can use technology more and in better ways than if we know some of our students won’t be able to do the assignment. It allows all of the students outside the classroom to work collaboratively,” Gates said.

Michael Arato ’18 also finds the program beneficial.  “So now that they’ll be able to have free Wi-Fi and have access to technology in their house, it will actually help students study more and it’ll allow students to do their work and there really won’t be any excuses,” said Arato “So with that,homework rates will go up and with that student grades will go up overall and that will not only help the students with their education, but will help Princeton in national school rankings as well.”

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