Economic Well-Being, Education
Bridging the digital divide for Detroit students: First fund of $23M launches
Today, The Skillman Foundation joined DTE Energy, Quicken Loans, Detroit Public Schools Community District and the City of Detroit to announce a $23-million investment to place a computer tablet with high-speed LTE internet connectivity, along with technical support, into the hands of the 51,000 DPSCD students before the end of the school year.
The first six months of internet connectivity will be fully subsidized during which time students will be transitioned to a low-cost, hard-wired connection.
The program, called Connected Futures, is the first step in addressing digital inequity within the city of Detroit – an issue that has been exacerbated as students have been forced to learn from home as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. DPSCD estimates that 90% of the district’s students do not have access to a device and the Internet.
“This is the first tranche that we’re tackling,” said Skillman Foundation President and CEO Tonya Allen. “DPSCD has the largest number of Detroit students and we wanted to be sure that we reached as many children as quickly as possible. But we’re not done. We’re already planning to expand our reach to the more than 36,000 children who attend other K-12 schools in the city. Digital access has evolved from a nicety to a necessity – and we cannot afford to let our children down.”
“This is not just a short-term response to keep kids engaged in learning for the next few months. It is the first step to fast tracking the integration of technology into our education system, for every student,” Tonya added. “We’re also thinking about how it can be used to expand opportunities for young people beyond school, such as connection to extended learning and afterschool programming, tutoring, social-emotional therapy, and career preparation. It provides a platform for the future.”
Detroit comes together for children
Businesses, philanthropic organizations and DPSCD have committed funding for the Connected Futures program over the last three weeks.
“When our executive team began prioritizing COVID-19 relief efforts, the issue of digital inequity for Detroit students rose to the top,” said DTE Energy President and CEO and Skillman Foundation Board Member Jerry Norcia. “We recognized that we needed to take action urgently to close the digital divide for these students and provide them with the tools necessary to thrive in the 21st Century. Today, the Detroit community commits to our children’s futures. It’s time for us to level the playing field for the students of Detroit.”
When schools were closed in mid-March and students had to finish their academic year at home, the district went to great lengths – including printing lesson packets – to ensure that learning continued. Regardless of the district’s efforts, the majority of students could not take advantage of online learning tools or connect with their teachers through video chat.
“This has been part of our long-term plan for DPSCD for three years as we have invested in technology at schools, but these investments did not impact the lack of connectivity at home,” said Dr. Nikolai Vitti, DPSCD superintendent. “The ability for our students to access the educational platforms that they use during the school day from home will elevate their learning year-round, not just during this crisis. We know that our children perform exponentially better during the school year, but when they return in September, they’ve lost much of their progress from the prior school year. We are sincerely grateful to DTE for leading the charge on this initiative and for the many funders who have come forward to support our students.”
Norcia points out that this program will benefit the entire family, not just the student. Between online job applications and workforce development opportunities, digital connectivity is a necessity. While students use the devices and internet connection to learn, their families will be able to easily access sites that can help them with everything from applying for financial assistance to finding a job.
“This entire program, from conception to funding, came together in less than three weeks,” said Bill Emerson, vice chairman of Quicken Loans and Rock Holdings, Inc. and board chair for The Skillman Foundation. “This is the power of our community when we’re faced with a big challenge. I believe this is a program that will be a catalyst for generations.”
The program was built with sustainability and accountability at the forefront. Both DPSCD and DTE have committed a project manager to this initiative. DPSCD, the City of Detroit, DTE, Quicken Loans and The Skillman Foundation have created a committee to oversee the initiative for the long-term – monitoring critical data points, discussing any issues that may arise and jointly problem solving.
Providing DPSCD students with the tools necessary in a digital world is only the first step. Funders recognize that this is an issue for all city schools and will be working with them to help close the digital divide.
“When we look back to this time in 10 years, we will see that this moment changed the trajectory of education in our city,” said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. “We have risen to the challenge of this pandemic and found a way to forge something positive for our children. This will be a defining moment of pride in Detroit for many, many years.”
“We’re using a muscle Detroit has built up. Our determination, resilience, and Detroit love enable us to pull us together and solve problems,” said Tonya Allen. “We’re creating a model for other cities to marvel at and mimic.”