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E-learning transition is especially difficult for urban school districts

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Nearly every school district in the country has undergone a massive transition over the last month as COVID-19 forces long-term closures.

For some, it’s a minor disruption getting students onboarded to e-learning, using devices from the school or their own they have at home.

For many other districts, especially those in urban areas, there wasn’t a broad e-learning strategy already in place. It’s something superintendents, their staff and a plethora of civic leaders have had to patch together along the way.

Indianapolis Public Schools is one of those districts.

The obvious issue is funding, but there’s more to it than just not having enough money to provide laptops, tablets and other technology to students.

For starters, IPS has to know which students do and don’t have a computer (or another device that can connect to the internet) and reliable internet access.

When IPS sent a survey to families to get that information, only about 30% responded. Why such a low number? Because the survey was online. It was a biased sample.

In the meantime, school staff has been calling families to learn what their needs are.

Numbers can shift with each household that responds, but so far the district has learned more than 50% of families have said their students don’t have regular access to a device that’s appropriate for extended e-learning, and 40% don’t have reliable internet access, according to Stephannie Bailey, CEO of the IPS Foundation.

“Those are some pretty large numbers with significant costs,” Bailey said during a recent virtual press conference to announce the creation of the IPS Education Equity Fund, which will help fill those gaps.

Once IPS has the information it needs, that’s when funding comes into play.

The district started with enough Chromebooks to have one device for every three students. High school students got priority, since they’re taking classes for credit. Next, devices are going to any middle school students who are taking credit-bearing classes and don’t have adequate technology at home.

“We weren’t starting at zero,” IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said. “We certainly had a base to build from, but we need to make that jump to a total one-to-one environment over the next couple months.”

The district’s goal is for the IPS Education Equity Fund, along with other local funding efforts, to make it so there’s one device for every student by next school year.

Johnson was blunt when she said that’s an important target to hit because of the possibility that a second wave of COVID-19 could lead to a similar need for e-learning next school year.

The district has also ordered 1,500 Wi-Fi hotspots, Johnson said, that will be shipped to families.

Some Indianapolis schools — Purdue Polytechnic High School, for example, which is a charter school — have made e-learning part of their foundation, but that’s not the case for most schools.

“E-learning in a lot of ways wasn’t a core instructional strategy,” said Patrick McAlister, who leads the city’s Office of Education Innovation. “It was a strategy that was enriching. When you’re an urban school district that has to work with a lot of diffident variables, it’s hard to transition.”

McAlister is also board chair for the recently established Indianapolis E-Learning Fund, which is raising money to help Marion County schools transition to e-learning, both in the short term and long term.

Indiana uses a combination of sales and income taxes to fund education at the state level, and local funding is made up mostly from property tax revenue.

Tying funding for education to property values is an example of structural racism, said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, a nonprofit education group that advocates for education reform.

Urban areas that suffered — and still suffer — from redlining will be impacted more during a recession, Brown said, than suburban school districts.

The state pays a dollar amount per student, and then districts get additional money for students who are poor or have special needs. Need used to be determined by if a student qualified for free and reduced lunch — about 65% of IPS students do — but that changed in 2015 so that need is instead determined by if a student receives welfare services or is part of the foster care system.

The change is unfair, opponents say, because getting access to welfare programs requires additional paperwork, whereas free and reduced lunch is based off of household income.

Brown is worried the state will come out on the other end of this pandemic and want to cut education funding, which makes up about half of the state budget, and subsequently put urban school districts at an even bigger disadvantage.

Indiana is set to receive more than $200 million in additional Title I funding — which is dispersed based on low-income student enrollment — from the recently passed federal stimulus package. 

The IPS Education Equity Fund is designed to complement other local funding efforts — most notably the Indianapolis E-Learning Fund — that have been established since the COVID-19 health crisis forced schools to close.

No school district will avoid a fate that’s at least swayed by COVID-19. Some will be completely upended. For IPS and other districts like it, the weight of finding solutions and implementing them quickly is even more significant.

“A number of our students will experience the brunt of this crisis because of the zip code they happen to live in,” Superintendent Johnson said, “because they happen to live in a food desert, because they happen to live in a place where there is inequitable access to the internet, because they happen to live in a place where there is housing instability or a lack of quick and easy access to health care.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

Staff at J.W. Riley School 43 prepare laptops for students to use for home learning. (Photo/J.W. Riley School 43 Twitter)

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