Barrington Middle School Prairie Campus students rushed down the halls to their classes carrying colorful bags with their brand new laptops.
Every Barrington Community Unit School District 220 middle school child received a laptop as part of the District’s 1:1 Initiative. But there remained a digital divide for the 1,500 low-income students who do not have Internet access at home.
Barrington 220 identified this problem as it
developed its 1:1 Initiative and administrators tried figuring out a solution.
Dr. Tom Leonard and his staff worked on developing partnerships and a program, Project Horsepower, to provide low-income families within the district with free Internet service and WiFi at home.
Barrington 220 unveiled Project Horsepower at BMS Prairie Campus this week. The two-year pilot program starts in the district’s middle schools in January.
For low-income qualify families, Project Horsepower eliminates hurdles students face without Internet access and extends learning beyond school walls, Leonard said. It will also help parents play a more active role in their children’s education, Leonard said.
Project Horsepower will be the first of its kind in Illinois and may become a model for other school districts. The project brings together the District, Comcast, NetGear and the Barrington Area Development Council (BADC) to help bridge the digital divide.
“I believe we will look back on this day as a watershed moment,” Barrington 220 Board of Education President Brian Battle said.
The Board of Education has made a commitment to finance technology initiatives but BADC, Netgear and Comcast are making those efforts a reality, he said.
BADC is helping with the funding so families will receive Internet access for free through the District and Comcast’s Internet Essentials. Netgear is providing free WiFi routers. Comcast is also providing the modem, wireless gateway installation and customer support, officials said.
Project Horsepower will also help teachers and other students. Teachers will be able to use the technology more effectively, Battle said. There will be no more barriers, he said.
A shared vision
Barrington 220 Assistant Superintendent Cynthia Jaskowiak was one of the people who worked with Comcast for a few years on the project. It came together when the BADC came forward with the funding and got on board with Comcast and Netgear, Jaskowiak said.
“It was almost like the stars aligned, we got to see others who shared this vision,” Jaskowiak said.
Comcast has been in the forefront of providing Internet access to low-income families. The company introduced Internet Essentials three years ago in Chicago, where it has been very successful. Internet Essentials allows families who qualify to pay $9.95 per month for access, compared to the usual $40 per month.
Comcast’s Vice-President of External Affairs Bret Perkins has personally seen the need for all children to have Internet access.
He recalled looking up Mt. Kilimanjaro with his son, who did not know where it was located. The two were able to see Mt. Kilimanjaro through Google Earth, seeing details like the snow.
When the two went to a their neighborhood playground later that day, Perkins began thinking of the children there who did not have access to the Internet.
“My son understands the world,” he said, adding the family has iPads and laptops. The parents of those children love their children as much as he does but don’t have the means to provide the technology or Internet access for their children, he said.
“It made me realize how important this is,” he said.
The District and its partners are making an investment in children and trying to close the digital divide, Perkins said.
“We can invest now and create opportunities or let the divide grow and pay for it later,” he said. “Our hope is this will set a model that is followed closely throughout the country,” he added.
Project Horsepower benefits
Robin Selden is chief marketing officer for Netgear, which is providing WiFi routers for free.
Her husband is a biology teacher and she finds technology is a critical element for teachers.
Battle feels Project Horsepower will help other students as well since teachers will be able to incorporate technology into their curriculum.
He also believes the project will help eliminate the achievement gap the District sees and open a new world up for students.
Project Horsepower reaffirms the community’s efforts to assure all students regardless of income have Internet access and the wealth of education opportunities it provides, said Joe Kelsch, director of the BADC.
“We are convinced the Barrington community will embrace this noble cause,” Kelsch said.