Today’s students face a number of challenges that did not exist just a decade ago. While technology has made it easier for students across the country to access information, accessing that technology remains a problem for many students. Since 2020, being able to access technology went from merely beneficial to absolutely necessary to academic success as classes and evaluations moved online. Closing the digital divide goes beyond the schools, affecting the community as a whole and requiring outside solutions and support to ensure Americans have the best education possible, wherever they live and regardless of age. An innovative new program aimed at bridging the digital divide for adults is the beginning of this journey for one school serving a unique student population in California.
Typically, when we think of students, we picture young people from six to their late teens. But at Highlands Community Charter and Technical Schools (HCCTS) in Sacramento, California, built on the motto “”It’s Never Too Late…”; students must be 22 to register and the average student age is 39. This tuition-free public charter school was set up to help adults without a high school diploma earn a diploma. Additionally, the school also focuses on English language learners, with students representing 88 countries attending classes daily.
Since all the students are adults, many of them have jobs and families that can make taking classes even more challenging. HCCTS not only offers 20 career technical education program options, it has more than 50 class locations, including access to virtual education through its Independent Study program. Despite their challenges, the students are dedicated, and the school is doing everything it can to provide the resources and access they need to succeed.
To continue evolving and growing since its first class in August 2014, HCCTS has worked to address challenges and issues students were experiencing. This includes adding in-demand technical programs and introducing childcare to campus. When COVID hit, HCCTS was impacted just like every other educational institution. They responded by providing Chromebooks, distributing 3,600 Chromebooks and 1,800 hotspots to students between March and December 2020. Further enhancements led to registered students receiving free smartphones starting in August 2021. Jimmy Geil, Senior Government Account Manager for SLED at Verizon, explained that “being able to connect to the Internet not only assists them with completing courses, but it’s about building those relationships and furthering their education so that they can not only better their lives, but the lives of all of those involved, whether it’s their kids or their families.”
Now, HCCTS is partnering with industry leaders to open up even more possibilities. As part of the digital inclusion program at HCCTS, Anissa Owens, Associate Director for Public Sector Sales at Verizon, shared how 2,000 students gained Internet access using jetpacks, or wireless hotspots, in just the past 60 days. But this is just the start. Currently, the program is focused on ensuring distance learners have access to the right equipment, including Chromebooks and connectivity. A cell tower is already on the campus headquarters to provide more robust service. Soon, a pilot program will be launched to enhance the free smartphone program and provide better connectivity for in-person students as well. And, as Geil pointed out, with better connectivity, the expectation is for an increase in completion rates.
Bridging the digital divide is a vital step the United States needs to take to improve education, job access, and many more services. Highlands Community Charter and Technical Schools is just one of many schools across the country working to help adults build their futures. While the program is in its infancy, Owens emphasized, “the goal is that they continue this program because the need for hybrid learning, or complete Distance Learning in Higher Education for adults will persist.”