AP NEWS

State is stepping in to help bridge the digital Homework Gap

May 15, 2019

Keion Parker, 14, seems used to the reaction he gets when he tells people what he wants to be when he grows up.

“I want to be the district attorney,” he says with complete confidence.

Parker is in eighth grade and said he has “no life” because he reads so much. He spends much of his time at the Scotland County Memorial Library, reading books and doing his homework.

“I usually come to the library to do stuff like that but if the library is not open I can’t access the internet,” he said.

Parker is one of the many students in North Carolina who do not have access to the internet at home. Recent research from the North Carolina Department of Information Technology found that one in every 10 students lacks that access, which makes it hard for them to complete homework assignments outside of school.

“If we have a cohort of 10 to 15 percent of students who are in the homework gap now, then how will those students be able to compete in a digital economy in 10 or 15 years?” asked Amy Huffman, a research policy specialist for the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure office.

The Homework Gap, as it’s being called, stretches from North Carolina’s rural communities to its urban communities.

“It breaks my heart because I see the potential in every child that walks through these doors,” said Scotland Neck senior librarian Brenda Mills. “These children are disadvantaged for lots of reasons but not having access to technology, which is crucial in today’s society to be able to take the step forward, is heartbreaking.”

And it’s a problem that’s often overlooked by many people in the tech savvy Triangle.

“We do get questions and sometimes from very informed well-meaning people that ask, Is this really a problem?” said Jeff Sural, director of the N.C. Broadband Infrastructure office.

In a survey the office conducted, 67% of the households said cost is the number one reason they do not have internet access. Another 24% said high-speed internet access is not available in their area.

“Because of the time it is right now you just assume that everybody has this and everybody has the internet,” Parker said.

The state is stepping in with a response to this problem that could eventually close the gap. The Homework Help program will start this fall in nine library systems spanning 14 counties. Each system will receive $35,000 to spend on things like Chromebooks and mobile hot spots that will be available for students to check out, much like they do with books.

“It seemed a natural for public libraries to step in,” said Timothy Owens, the state librarian. “They are uniquely positioned to support schoolchildren and to provide access after school and on the weekends.”

The program will be funded by North Carolina’s Hometown Strong initiative, which claims on its website that it is “a more personal and hands-on approach for state government’s reaction to the needs of North Carolina’s rural communities.”

“Government has a role to serve to make sure all citizens have access to basic needs of everyday life and internet access right now is a basic need,” said Sural.

Students like Parker are excited about what the new access could mean for the future -- and for his aspiration to eventually go to law school.

“That would be very helpful,” he said. “I would be able to do my projects and assignments and be able to complete them and get better grades.”