October 12, 2014

With no Internet at home, Miami-Dade kids crowd libraries for online homework

Once again, Christina Morua found herself in the South Dade library longer than she would like on a school night. The 28-year-old single mom sat in the bustling children’s section on a recent Thursday, waiting for her fourth-grader to get on a computer and start some online math homework.

“We don’t have any Internet at home,” Morua said as her oldest, 11-year-old Abel, clicked through an assignment on a library laptop while Alina, 9, waited for her turn at a desktop. “We just reserved a computer. We have to wait 70 minutes. He got one of the last laptops.”

With more school materials heading online, parents like Morua find they can no longer count on home for homework. That leaves Miami-Dade libraries as a crucial venue for their youngest patrons, but funding challenges, reduced hours on school nights and aging equipment have made it harder to meet the demand.

“The laptops we do have, the batteries aren’t working,” said Patricia Readon, a librarian working the children’s desk at the South Dade branch in Cutler Bay. “You can check out a laptop, and the next 30 minutes it’s dead. The sad part is, if you don’t have a computer, you can’t do your homework.”

Morua’s long wait for a computer offers a flip side to the current debate over how best to reinvent Miami-Dade’s libraries. Thatdiscussion has largely focused on how to attract people with no current interest in libraries — entrepreneurs who need office space, twenty-somethings who might like a Starbucks near the checkout counter, and 3-D printers for the “maker” movement of techie do-it-yourselfers.

Yet for families without access to online homework, libraries are already the place to be on school nights. It’s just the lack of computers that has them complaining.

“I work nights,” Pauline Theobolds explained as her 12-year-old son, Cameron, used a South Dade laptop. They have a computer at home, but it doesn’t seem to work properly with Cameron’s school connection. Theobolds’ shift as a nurse requires them to leave the library by 6:30 p.m. “The other night was tight because they didn’t have any computers.”

Miami-Dade’s library system has an extra $4 million to spend this year, thanks to a sharp increase in the special property tax that funds the system.

But with higher labor costs, expanded operating hours for larger branches and beefed-up budgets for children’s books and online tutoring, the system doesn’t have funds to increase the number of computer stations, said Gia Arbogast, the county’s interim library director. Even the countywide scheduling changes that returned seven-day service to larger branches complicates the homework scene. Some smaller branches, including Coral Gables and Kendall, closed on school nights to be open Friday or Sunday.

On the bright side, Arbogast said, there will be money to replace aging laptop computers with new SurfacePro tablets. That should ease the pressure at crunch time on school nights.

“It’s a priority for us,” Arbogast said. “It’s an ongoing demand that we are struggling to keep up with.”

Miami-Dade’s school system does not have a policy governing online homework beyond the general rule that assignments should only require resources that are readily available, said Sylvia Diaz, assistant schools superintendent for innovation.

“We really shouldn’t be requiring kids to go to the library to complete assignments,” Diaz said. “A project or something special is OK, but not daily homework assignments that are dependent on computer use.”

That’s the guidance at the Somerset charter school the Moruas’ children attend in Homestead. “I’m not happy,” said principal Cristina Cruz-Ortiz. “The student has to just tell the teacher he doesn’t have Internet access.”

Whatever the official position on digital learning, there is no mistaking the online migration under way in Miami-Dade County schools.

Miami-Dade recently shifted to digital history textbooks for high school freshmen, providing all ninth-graders with tablets containing the interactive books. County elementary schools now incorporate the online programcalled Reflex Math, which looks like a video game and can be accessed by students 24 hours a day. And with printed-material budgets under pressure, some students describe traditional textbooks as valuable commodities.

Isaiah Goulbourne, 16 and a junior at Miami Norland Senior High School, said there is a textbook waiting for him each day for English, but it never leaves the classroom. “We’re not allowed to take them home because there aren’t enough for everyone,” he said. “Most of our textbooks are accessible online.”

Goulbourne said he relies on the North Dade library for online schoolwork because he doesn’t have Internet access at home. It is a common need at the branch in Miami Gardens, where one in five residents lives below the poverty level.

No access

A 2011 survey of young patrons found about 45 percent reported having no online access at home. Estimates by the nonprofit group EveryoneOn.orgthat 35 percent of Miami-Dade’s households lack an Internet connection, given the county’s poverty rate. Research by the school system puts the estimate closer to 25 percent, while the latest Census figures estimate 19 percent of children nationally live in households without Internet.

The North Dade branch has the second-largest number of computers in the library system — 107, compared to 49 in South Dade — along with a pioneering national program for teens called YouMedia that pairs pricey computer equipment with creative endeavors.

“Right now, I’m learning Python,” Favour Nkwocha, 17, said as he worked on a coding tutorial on a YouMedia Macintosh. Nearby, Brianna Thompson pointed to an illustration of a fairy that was taped to the wall of the converted periodical room. The 17-year-old, who wore a handmade backpack crocheted with 2,000 bottle caps, created the sprightly drawing using a miniature digital easel. “I like Photoshop the best,” she said.

Youmedia, funded with start-up money from the Miami-based Knight Foundation, is open to any teenager 14 and older with a library card. Miami-Dade plans to use some of the new library dollars to open a new Youmedia program in the South Dade branch next year.

While it may seem like a computer lab from Glee — a recent visit had a 19-year-old singing before a green screen in the video area while another teenager danced to some digital music created by one of the program’s young composers — Youmedia also attracts high schoolers who need basic online access.

Keturah Goulbourne, Isaiah’s older sister, used one of the Youmedia Macs to pull up her civics textbook from Norland. She has no hard copy, and said sometimes her teacher will use the classroom’s wall-size computer screen to show entire pages so that students can take notes on the text. “I love coming here,” said Keturah, 18.

Access watchdogs praise school systems for moving learning online. But they say the pace must match educators’ ability to make sure students from low-income families are not at an even worse disadvantage by having to leave home to complete their homework.

“The sequencing has to make sense — otherwise you create deeper gaps,” said Zach Leverenz, CEO of EveryoneOn, which works with Miami-Dade and other school systems to provide subsidized online access for students. “What I don’t think is a good stopgap is assuming students are going to be able to find public [Internet] hot spots, including libraries.”

Comcast’s Internet Essentials effort offers $10 monthly Internet service to families that qualify for school-lunch help, while Miami-Dade schools’ Connect@Home program has passed out home Internet devices that provide free Wi-Fi for about 2,000 households. It’s a tiny subset of a system with 300,000 students, but the start of what administrators say will be a larger effort in the coming years to level the digital playing field.

“The goal is really to get to a point where kids do have a personal deviceand have Internet access outside of school,” said Diaz, the school system’s digital-learning chief. “Unfortunately, so many of our kids are poor, so it’s rather challenging.”

For Morua’s son Abel, online homework has made multiplication exponentially more fun than it might be for an 11-year-old sent home with an arithmetic workbook. “This is Mathletics,” the fifth-grader said, pointing to the library laptop’s screen, which showed a T-shirt-wearing cartoon character next to a math problem awaiting an answer. “That’s my avatar.”

He solved problems rapid-fire as his sister waited for her computer to become available. Christina, their mother, said she had to drop home Internet service when she decided to pursue a nursing degree. “That was an expense that had to be cut,” she said.

Michele Stiles, the library branch manager and a veteran of the system, said she has seen similar back-ups at other locations. There isn’t much librarians can do except fill out a form certifying that there were not enough computers for a child to finish an assignment.

“If you ever come here and there is a long wait for a computer,” Stiles told Morua, “you can get an ‘excuse note’ from the front.”

 

 


Douglas Hanks
Miami Herald