Portage County (Ohio) schools, libraries work to combat homework gap

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By Krista S. Kano, courtesy of Record-Courier

Although many Portage County (Ohio) school districts are working toward one-to-one technology within their buildings to prepare their students for an increasingly tech-driven future, some students may be lagging behind their peers due to lack of access to computers and internet when they go home.

According to an Associated Press analysis of census data, an estimated 17 percent of U.S. students do not have access to computers at home and 18 percent do not have home access to broadband internet.

In Portage, about 10.47 percent of households do not have internet; 11.47 percent do not have computers, tablets or smartphones; and 22.76 percent do not have broadband, including cellular data plans, cable, fiber optic or DSL. District-level data did not differentiate between households that had school-age children and those that did not.

“Is access a problem? Yes, and it’s not just our district. I’m sure all districts have the same issue,” Kent City Schools Superintendent George Joseph said.

Lack of access can have consequences in what has become known as the homework gap. A 2018 study by the Institute of Education Sciences National Center for Education Statistics found that eighth-graders with home internet or computers on average score higher in reading, math and science than those who do not have it.

To combat the homework gap, area schools have implemented district-wide study halls, allowed students to remain in buildings after hours to complete homework and avoided internet-based homework to better serve these students.

Theodore Roosevelt High School, for example, started a school-wide early release every Wednesday, when students are encouraged to work on assignments in the building where there are computers, Chromebooks and Wi-Fi.

(Map courtesy of Kent City School District)

The district also has a map on its website pointing students and parents to several nearby buildings that offer free internet, including 28 locations in Kent, 17 in Stow and two in Munroe Falls.

Crestwood Superintendent David Toth estimated that about 25 percent of the district’s students do not have access to the internet at home, but believed that more students can access the internet through their phones.

To accommodate those students, Crestwood teachers will offer hard copies of assignments, and the schools offer intervention periods when students can get help. Toth also said that if it can be avoided, the district will not require an assignment that needs the internet, but students can sign out Chromebooks to bring home. Additionally, students can be in the buildings before and after school to use their internet.

The Field School District, which does not keep track of students’ access at home, also tries to avoid assigning homework that requires the use of the internet, as they do not allow students to take home district Chromebooks.

“We know there are students who don’t have access, so we try with our assignments to make sure we allow time in school for students to use the computers and internet as needed,” Superintendent David Heflinger said.

Ravenna Superintendent Dennis Honkala said that internet access is not a widespread problem in his district, but there are homes without access. All Ravenna school buildings have free internet access to its students and the public after school hours. Honkala said that they do not allow students to take home district-owned devices, but students are allowed to stay in their library or common areas after school hours to work.

Five years ago, James A. Garfield district surveyed its community and found that more than 80 percent of families had internet access, which led the school to implement its 1:1 program.

“We do know that high-speed access is a problem in some areas of our district, so we worked with the library for assistance and they now have Wi-Fi hotspots that can be checked out and used for access,” Superintendent Ted Lysiak said.

Lysiak worked with the Portage County District Library, which now has 90 hotspots within its system, library Director John Harris said. Most students are not able to check out hotspots by themselves, due to age restrictions, but their parents can.

“One thing that made us realize there was a need for something like circulating hotspots was there would be times where we’d be leaving and locking buildings at night and there’d be someone in their car with a laptop using wireless from the parking lot, even when we weren’t open. That was one of the signals that this is something we should pursue,” Harris said.

Another drive to get the hotspots was local districts’ push toward Chromebooks, Harris said.

“When kids didn’t have internet at home, that was a major stumbling block,” he said.

The Portage library system includes Aurora, Garrettsville, Streetsboro, Randolph and Windham branches, which all have hotspots and computer labs available. They do not currently have laptops or tablets available for circulation.

Similarly, the Kent Free Library has 40 mobile hotspots, which it added to its collection in May, and 40 computers that can be used for up to two hours at a time when all are in use. Library Director Stacey Richardson said that it is rare that all computers are in use at a single time.

Ravenna’s Reed Memorial Library has 35 computers available to the public, including three in the teen room, Director Brian C. Hare said. The library is in the final stage of testing to circulate hotspots, and Hare said that they should be available to patrons in the next month or so. The library also offers 24/7 Wi-Fi, so even when the library is closed, patrons can sit in their parking lot with a laptop and continue to work through the night or early morning.