Schools work to increase Internet access for low-income families

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comJuly 12, 2014 

The Beaufort County School District will allow many students to take their school-issued tablets home this fall, but officials worry some of them don't have the Internet access to use the devices.

As a result, the district is partnering with local communications companies to bring lower-cost Internet access to low-income families.

"Having access to the Internet brings a lot of additional information to the fingertips of our students," district head of technology Ross Hendricks said. "So ensuring students have access to Internet at home is a priority for us."

Middle-schoolers will start bringing tablets home in August, and high school students begin to do so mid-year.

The district will distribute a technology handbook to families in August to make them aware of the various reduced-rate and low-income programs available.

CenturyLink and Comcast have offered programs to low-income families for several years. For example, CenturyLink's program, called Internet Basics, costs about $10 a month. Attempts to reach representatives from Comcast were unsuccessful Wednesday.

Time Warner Cable does not have a specific program for low-income families, according to a spokesman, but its lowest tier of service costs about $14.

Hargray Communications will launch a new program on the first day of school, Aug. 19. The company developed its Jump Start program in recent months after the district approached it in an effort to expand low-cost options for its families.

Hargray's program will also cost families about $10 a month, plus any taxes and fees, according to Chris McCorkendale, vice president of operations and strategic sales.

"We believe having access to high-speed Internet is essential in terms of educational opportunities and helping to close the digital divide," he said.

Participants must apply for the program every year. Approval is based on the qualifications students must meet to receive free or reduced-price lunches. More than half of the district's 20,000 students qualify for the lunch program, according to the S.C. Department of Education.

'A GREAT STEP'

When the district surveyed about 2,500 middle and high school students last year regarding Internet access, Hendricks said about 10 percent didn't have access at home.

An official with the Neighborhood Outreach Connection -- a nonprofit that provides educational support to low-income families -- believes that number is much higher.

Program vice chairwoman Ally McNair said she has seen many students sit outside the doors of the organization's classrooms or an apartment complex's office to connect to wireless Internet.

Some families may still struggle to pay the $10, money could go toward rent or groceries, McNair said. But she believes it will have a tremendous impact.

"I see these programs providing access being a really great step and think it is a crucial component for these kids to achieve academic success," McNair said. "To not have access, as many students currently don't, is setting them up to fall behind and giving them less of a chance to succeed."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

Related content:

Different educational tech models pop up around county: Is one better than the other?, March 22, 2014

Beaufort County schools to let tablets go home, will add usage fee, January 19, 2014 Tablet program to grow in Beaufort County schools, January 4, 2014

Despite struggles at Bluffton House, nonprofit group model proves successful: Neighborhood Outreach Connection plans to expand program locations, December 21, 2013

$3.4 million in cuts could be felt in Beaufort County classrooms, school officials say, June 29, 2014

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