21st Century student success hinges on internet access

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Ximena Tapia, NMID.

A teacher uses a smartboard at Arrowhead Early College High School.

Gone are the days of chalkboards – and even whiteboards – in schools. The Las Cruces Public Schools district has slowly transitioned into using more technology, such as Promethean boards — fully digital smart screens that can connect to a computer to be used as a projector or writing board. And class textbooks and curriculum in many cases are fully online.

That means students need access to the internet and a computer to do schoolwork, which is a challenge for many in Las Cruces. Twenty-two percent of LCPS students don’t have an internet subscription, meaning no data plans, broadband or any other type of service, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Just over eight percent don’t have a computer at home, and 10 percent have only a smartphone. The situation is more dire in households earning less than $20,000 a year, with almost 42 percent not having an internet subscription.

Not having an internet subscription at home makes doing homework inconvenient, but not impossible, says Las Cruces High School junior Jennifer Tarango, who only has a smartphone with data. She says she needs to use the internet to do her homework about twice a week.

“Students who have internet at home have it easier because they don’t have to go anywhere to do their homework, but I just have to find another way,” she said.

Tarango uses her smartphone to do research, but when she needs more access — for example, to use Rosetta Stone two hours a week for her Spanish class — she has to find other  options. She sometimes goes over to her grandmother’s house, a friend’s house, or goes to school an hour early.

Her mother, Elisa Tapia, says having internet at home would be more for luxury than necessity.  

“Jennifer has never missed an assignment, nor has her grade ever dropped, due to lack of internet access. If it ever did, it would be because she didn’t use all her resources,” Tapia said.

Ximena Tapia, NMID.

Jennifer Tarango and Elisa Tapia.

 Making do with borrowed internet services works for some students with alternate access, but not all LCPS students have that access to complete assignments that require it. And in order to graduate, students have to take one class that is at least 50 percent online (or they can substitute that class with honors or college level coursework). Which means students need internet access as a matter of equity.

Knowing how to use technology and having access to the internet is important for young people, said Josh Silver, LCPS director of online teaching and learning. The more limited internet is for students, the less information they have for research or other assignments.

Not only does lack of internet at home potentially affect performance in school, but also in the workforce as well. Many places no longer have paper job applications available. An applicant must apply online, and although some businesses like Target and Walmart have computers in-store for people to use for applications, many require job seekers to use their own device.

The stakes aren’t lost on LCPS, which acknowledges the need for technological access and adeptness in its own technology plan:

“Current technologies are responsive to the learning styles of the new millennial generation and help prepare these students for the technology-driven workplace of the 21st century that contributes to student success.”

Each LCPS high school has a minimum of four open computer labs, three to four mobile carts with laptops and five to six mobile carts with iPads. Educators are encouraged to use this hardware in their everyday routines because students don’t always have access to the internet at home, said Christina Mullins, an LCPS associate superintendent who oversees data collection and reporting, as well as student/parent information systems, for the district.

“It’s always been a priority to have technology in schools. It’s hard to keep up with trends because they move so rapidly, but schools do a great job at it,” Mullins said.

Despite those efforts, it is difficult to provide a laptop or iPad to every student in the LCPS district. There are 24,863 students enrolled this school year, according to the LCPS website.

One parent, who asked to remain anonymous so her child at Centennial High School wouldn’t face repercussions, said she and other parents have been asked by a teacher to contribute to a GoFundMe drive to buy iPads so that students could all use the internet at the same time.

Mullins said the biggest obstacle in providing students and teachers with the tools they need is funding.

“We need to provide teachers with professional development training, we need better infrastructure, we need more hardware, and all these things require funding. We can’t do better without the funds,” she said.


Editor’s note: Jennifer Tarango and Elisa Tapia are relatives of NMID reporter Ximena Tapia.

Ximena Tapia is New Mexico In Depth 2019 Fellow from New Mexico State University. 

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