Thanks to a partnership with Sprint, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library (CML) in Charlotte, NC, is making a big difference in the lives of its local teens who don’t have reliable broadband at home—increasingly, a requirement for kids to do research and complete assignments. This academic year, nearly 150,000 kids in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school districts (CMS) are now being offered the chance to use 150 wireless hotspots with devices they can check out from the library.
“A Pew study found that 85 percent of Americans want to see public schools and public libraries work together more closely, so our community took that to heart,” says Martha Yesowitch, whose position as educational partnerships manager at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library was created for better collaboration. The school system estimates that about 25,000 students are without web access in Mecklenburg County, primarily due to economic barriers including the cost of monthly service, the devices, and their maintenance.
The flagship initiative, ONE Access, allows CMS kids to use their student IDs as library account numbers, giving them full access to the library’s offerings. Last year, the library became part of the White House ConnectED challenge, the program announced by President Obama in 2013 that seeks, in part, to improve K–12 education by connecting 99 percent of American kids with high-speed wireless Internet access. The White House put out the call for communities to apply. An agreement signed by the library CEO, the county manager, and the school superintendent stated that the Charlotte community would work toward the ConnectEd goals.
In order to launch the hotspot pilot program, the library and school system collaborated with E2D, a local non-profit that provides low-cost laptops to families and students in need, and with Communities In Schools, a national non-profit dedicated to dropout prevention, explains Yesowitch. “Five high schools were targeted, and a select group of high-achieving, yet at-risk students, were able to purchase a laptop from E2D for $50 and be some of the first ones to check out a hotspot if they didn’t have the Internet at home,” she says. Sprint partnered with ConnectEd to provide the lower cost devices and connectivity. The library applied to receive devices and service, and was approved for 150 devices for which they paid about $75 each. Sprint provides 3GB of high speed data per month.
The CML system is piloting the lending program, which is mostly promoted to high school students, in five of their 20 locations, though the hotspots can be accessed by any CMS student without Internet at home. Early feedback has been mostly positive, says Yesowitch. “Families are excited by the opportunity to borrow devices for the hotspots and are happy that the lending is set up so students can continue to check out the devices throughout the school year,” she adds.
Students are pleased as well, as evidenced by tales from Frank Blair, the library’s director of technology and operations. “When you see a rising ninth grader walk out of a device distribution fair with a big smile on his face because he now has the solution he needs—a laptop and bandwidth—it’s priceless,” he says. Many kids are finally able to close their personal homework gap that they know was keeping them from achieving more in middle school, he adds.
What advice does Yesowith have for public librarians seeking to start a similar program? A strong partnership with local schools is beneficial, as is being a part of the ConnectED challenge, she says. “We were able to purchase the devices at a lower cost because of ConnectED.”
EveryoneOn.org, a national non-profit dedicated to bridging the digital divide, was also extremely helpful to the library, Yesowitch says. “EveryoneOn is a great resource for low-cost home connectivity solutions, especially if a library system doesn’t have the sort of partnership with schools required for ConnectED.”
In addition to supporting the success of CMS students, hotspot lending is an important aspect of the library’s digital inclusion initiative. “The library is part of a community-wide task force working to ensure that no one is left behind when it comes to bridging the digital divide,” explains Blair. The demand for digital resources in Charlotte, and the county at large, is growing—with an expected circulation of 1,000,000 ebooks and other materials this year alone. That means that fast, reliable access to these materials is more important than ever. As Blair puts it, “digital inclusion is just the right thing to do.”
A similar program was recently launched by New York City libraries, Google, and Sprint.
Manhattan-based editor Jennifer Kelly Geddes writes regularly for Parents.com and Care.com.
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