Bridging the digital divide: Edmonds School District families in need receive free laptops

Marianne Costello, instructional technology coordinator for the Edmonds School District, teaches laptop owners how to use their new computers.

Marianne Costello, instructional technology coordinator for the Edmonds School District, teaches laptop owners how to use their new computers.

As work and everyday life become increasingly digitized, the need for access to technology at home grows. On Thursday night, 60 families in need received free laptops to use as educational tools at home, courtesy of the Edmonds Public Schools Foundation.

According to Deborah Anderson, the foundation’s executive director, a survey taken last year revealed that approximately 20 percent of students in the Edmonds School District did not have regular access to a computer or the Internet at home. The laptop giveaway was created in response to that finding.

Last year the foundation, which raises and distributes funds to support Edmonds School District students’ learning, gave away 200 laptops over two events. This year, Anderson said that they are hoping to give away 70 computers in January in addition to the 60 computers given away at the event on Thursday night, making a total of 330 laptops given away over the two academic years.

If a student does not have access to the Internet at home, they cannot access online assignments, which are becoming increasingly popular, or check their grades. Research cannot be done at home for projects and papers. Without a computer at home, students cannot type their papers.

“Everything we do in the digital age is online,” Anderson said. “We’re helping to bridge that gap of ability versus inability.”

In order to select laptop winners, the foundation created an application for students to show that they meet income qualifications and that they have a demonstrated need. If they met the requirements, they were entered into a lottery, and names were drawn for each available computer.

Fifty of the computers given away at Thursday night’s event are refurbished Gateway laptops, equipped with Windows Vista, Microsoft OpenOffice, and Microsoft Security Essentials. These computers do not have much use within the district anymore, Anderson said, but that does not mean that they are out of life entirely. The computers were wiped clean and updated before their distribution.

The other 10 computers are notebooks donated by Comcast. Comcast also offers Internet Essentials for $10 per month to families that qualify for free or reduced school lunches. Laptop recipients also received information on how to get this service.

“This donation means that these students can get their homework done on time,” Anderson said. “We’re really grateful for their support and letting this happen.”

After receiving their new laptops, families gathered around tables, plugged in their power cords and got a hands-on lesson on how to operate them, taught by Marianne Costello, instructional technology coordinator for the Edmonds School District.

She showed participants how to log on, use OpenOffice and turn on wi-fi. The group watched a video detailing some common sense rules for parents so that they can show their kids how to use the Internet safely. Costello also provided examples of bogus virus warnings versus the update bubbles requested by Microsoft Security Essentials. Fliers were also distributed outlining how to get inexpensive Internet access at home.

The instruction was designed to ensure that the new laptop recipients had the information they needed to access the Internet and online educational tools as well as the ability to create files and documents.

“I think this is a big step in our community to narrow the digital divide, and it’s so important as we take more instruction online,” Costello said. “You’ll notice the kids are having no trouble. This is their language, and they need to have this at home.”

The room was abuzz with excitement as new laptop owners learned how to use their machines.

“I am very excited, for us it’s a very big deal,” recipient Valeda King said of her new laptop. “This is going to be a strictly educational tool for us, doing research and typing reports.”

In addition to her son using the laptop for school, King plans on using it for her own research and papers for community college courses that she takes.

A high school-aged brother and sister who preferred to remain anonymous said that this was a good opportunity for them, and they were  surprised to hear that they won. The two said that especially as they get closer to college, they need better access to the Internet and the ability to do schoolwork on a computer. However, the brother is also looking forward to having fun with the new machine by watching movies and playing games.

– Story and photo by Natalie Covate

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