Low Performing School Communities and the Digital Divide

A NAEP report published by the IES in 2007 assessed academic achievement of Puerto Rico’s public schools in Mathematics to be, on average, 50% below the national average by the time students reach the fourth grade. This disparity continues as students reach the eighth grade. It is estimated that Puerto Rico’s educational system lost access to $60 million in Reading First Programs under No Child Left Behind after failing to provide a curriculum that could be approved.

In the most recent study of Internet use on the Island (Puerto Rico Internet Pulse 2008), 38% of the population 12 and older connects to the Internet. Of this group, 15% does not cite the availability of home based connections. The study suggests that this latter group uses access points and computers at school or at work to navigate the web. This information is in stark contrast to the assessment realized by the Library and Information Systems Program of the Puerto Rico Department of Education.

In December 2006, April and May 2007 the Library and Information Systems Program of the Puerto Rico Department of Education conducted a survey among public schools and municipal library users and determined that ·”libraries need (1) to increase the public’s use of technology by increasing electronic capacities of libraries and training librarians and the public to effectively use technology” and secondly, “ (2) public schools need strong school library media programs that will support the academic success of Puerto Rico’s students. However, when the report was published in 2008, its assessment states that nearly 30% of the Puerto Rico public schools do not have adequate technology resources and 85% of public school libraries are said to need urgent renovation of media and technology equipment.

Over 78% of Puerto Rico’s public school students are below the poverty line. For this population, public schools are the first, and often only place, with access to computers. When the reality of Puerto Rico’s public school libraries is considered, it provides a powerful argument for why over 60% of the population 12 and older do not have access to the Internet and can be considered technologically illiterate.

The digital divide, herein described, alongside the recurring under-performance of public school students portrays a population at risk of being systemically disenfranchised from economic opportunity and social advancement. In order to effect change in the short term, a multi-pronged approach that combines innovation in the curriculum, improvement in the technology resources, and ongoing training of the human resources that will manage and interact with the new technology and curriculum changes.

Under the American Recovery and Rehabilitation Act (ARRA) the Federal Government makes funds available to Educational Regions for the modernization of school infrastructure, education reform for underachieving schools, “innovation and improvement” in education, improving data systems and data coordination efforts, ongoing education of teachers in support of school reform and innovation, integration of technology in education and initiatives advancing the learning of math and science. Furthermore, the Federal Government has renewed its commitment to Reading First Programs and has grant programs that focus on the development of libraries and early literacy initiatives.

The Puerto Rico Department of Education has identified problems with the passive integration of educational software in any given class. Computers identified for specific classes and software use are usually made unavailable for other classes to use. Furthermore the breakdown of any computer seems to not only inconvenience the teacher but also the school and negatively taints students and teachers relationship with technology, leaving an impression of disempowerment and lack of control.

The moment is right for making change happen. The proverbial ball is in our court.  Teachers, students, parents, administrators and the community at large all need to come together to bring about change.  Not just change to ease the immediate flow of funds, but the kind of change that transforms us all in the process. Teachers raising the bar on their performance, students growing in focus and commitment, parents with a renewed faith and joy in the school in of their children. Change is never easy but it  is possible we are open to it.