This past March, approximately 1.5 million Michigan public school students started summer break three months early as Governor Gretchen Whitmer closed schools due to the pandemic. As districts transitioned to online learning, a problem soon became glaringly obvious in Detroit: more than 90% of students had no way to access the Internet at home.

“Prior to this, there were 31,000 students who were actually using digital devices during the school year,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, Vice President of the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) Board of Education, said. “Once the pandemic hit, that number drastically reduced to 4,000 students, and so we knew that we could not continue to learn at-scale without addressing this issue.”

In April, the district announced a plan to raise $23 million in order to provide each of its 51,000 students with both a laptop and high-speed Internet plans, free of charge. 

The plan, called the Connected Futures Initiative, quickly caught the community’s attention, but it wasn’t just the scale of the project that caused such a buzz—it was the fact that someone was doing it at all.

“I’ve been researching, and I haven’t seen another program like this across the United States other than in our district,” Peterson-Mayberry said. “The support from the community has been overwhelming sometimes because people [are] constantly reach out saying, ‘How can we help?’”

Soon, major benefactors like DTE Energy, Quicken Loans, the Kellogg Foundation, the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, the Balmer Foundation, General Motors and Human IT joined together to raise the $23 million in only three weeks.

“DTE felt finding a way forward for students to continue their education was a moral imperative after COVID-19 hit. We also understood that providing 51,000 students in Detroit their personal electronic learning device with high speed broadband would be a game-changer. Connected Futures empowers families to learn, earn degrees and certificates, seek employment, access telehealth, apply for assistance, and so much more,” Nancy Moody, Vice President of Public Affairs at DTE Energy, explained in an email.

Together, the district, DTE Energy and its other donors acquired the laptops and began distributing them at the students’ schools along with plans for six months’ worth of free Internet coverage.

Leaders decided upon Windows iView tablets, which come with 10.1-inch screens and detachable keyboards. Each device also has 4 gigabytes of RAM, as well as 64 gigabytes of storage to support the type of learning and work the students do.

“We had to figure out what kind of device was possible to procure at an affordable price and get,” Moody said.

Although the initial plan was scheduled to wrap up in June, distribution will continue for the rest of the summer.

“Certainly before the end of the summer, every student, every kindergartener, will have their device, and the families will be all set and ready to roll with online learning,” Moody said. “In that way, we’re really empowering the family itself to become digitally educated and to be able to change their lives in ways that the rest of us have been using for many years.”

Despite the district’s tremendous efforts, the pandemic has still exposed systemic issues in Detroit that go beyond limited computers.

“We’re looking at this issue in Detroit of kids going to be sent home from school in March not having the ability to connect digitally to their teachers,” Moody explained. “We call it the digital divide, where, you know, you only have a certain percentage of households in the entire city that are digitally connected with high-speed Internet.”

Cyrus Peñarroyo, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan who specializes in how technology shapes infrastructure, said that this problem disproportionately affects minority populations, especially Black communities, and derives from a long history of systemic inequality. 

“Detroit has a history with redlining that prevented many Black communities from getting access to adequate housing, and so what’s happening now is a version of the same thing, one could argue, where that disinvestment is actually happening with digital infrastructure,” Peñarroyo said.

In a district where Black students make up about 78% of the student body and where about 45% of all families are below the poverty line, large swaths of students are at a systemic disadvantage for obtaining Internet access. The Internet disparity between Detroit children and those elsewhere, then, runs deeper than just the lack of technology.

Map of 2010 census participation (in blue) correlated with low broadband coverage (in orange). Image courtesy of Data Driven Detroit.

Detroiters have been working for years to create better conditions for themselves, and the Connected Futures Initiative was a long time in the making.

“It’s not a new journey for us over the last three years as we have made multimillion-dollar investments in our technology and our schools. And so we were on that path anyway. We had already reduced the gap of having a 1:6 technology ratio to 1:1.7,” Peterson-Mayberry said.

Computer distribution will wrap up by the end of the month, but the work isn’t done. Peñarroyo still has visions of a longer-term solution.

“It’s a coordination between political organizations, nonprofit organizations, community organizations, schools,” he said. “In order for this to happen and for it to be sustainable, I think it has to involve all of these different groups coming around this shared goal and for the investment to be there in this infrastructure.”

While DPSCD is grateful for the positive attention the program has gained, Peterson-Mayberry hopes other districts will follow suit.

“We welcome the communication that can take place and even the support around putting together a program like this,” she says. “It’s so much more than learning.”

Milan Eldridge contributed to this article.

This article was updated on 07/25/20.

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