Digital Divide Exacerbates Achievement Gap

Dec 23, 2019

Inside the Kramden Institute warehouse in south Durham where computers and other electronics are refurbished.
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

In a nondescript office park in south Durham, volunteers dug through a giant box of donated electronics. This particular box held hundreds of power cords for Apple iMacs, Lenovo ThinkPads and more. Surrounding that box were others with keyboards, monitors and other accessories.

It's not glamorous work, said Michael Abensour, executive director of the Kramden Institute, but it's necessary. Kramden is a nonprofit that fights to bridge the digital divide. It collects donated computer equipment, refurbishes it, and then gives it away – mostly to students who don't have access to a computer at home.

"We were founded in 2003 and since then we have given away 36,000 computers," said Abensour. "And in 2019, it looks like we are going to hit our goal of 4,300 computers across the state."

When Kramden first started, Abensour says it felt a bit like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up a hill. Even as they were giving away more computers, the need still grew.

"At least now I feel like there's a lot of other partners both at the state level and even nationally who understand that you have to get over the homework gap," he said. "It's an impediment to success."

But even with efforts from Kramden and other groups, the digital divide persists. Some 380,000 North Carolina students don't have access to the internet at home. And more than half a million in this state don't have a home computer, according to data provided by the Associated Press.

In the graphic below, school districts shaded darker have a higher percentage of households with school aged children without Internet access. Hover the mouse cursor over the map to get more information specific individual school districts.

Many advocates say this divide will exacerbate the already yawning achievement gap.

"More affluent families will be able to make up for the lack of investments that have been made in instructional materials by providing them themselves, while lower income folks won't have that option," said Matt Ellinwood of the North Carolina Justice Center's Education and Law Project. "That's something that may have been driving the achievement gap over the past decade and we're concerned that it will do so even more going forward."

Inside the Kramden Institute offices, T-shirts of giveaway events line the walls.
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

Others are looking at the problem as well. Digital product company WillowTree's CEO Tobias Dengel says solutions must start in middle school, when affluent students – and primarily boys – take an interest in gaming and then seek out ways to learn programming.

By time they reach high school, he says, they've gained an advantage over other students, who then choose other paths. "If we want to get more diversity... we have to attack it at middle school," he said. "We cannot allow a divide to begin at middle school."

During the 2017-18 legislative session, Abensour helped push legislation that would see computers from surplus state property donated to Kramden to be refurbished and given back to school children.

"Every year, the State Surplus Property Agency disposes of tens of thousands of surplus/retired computers by either selling them for pennies on the dollar or by outright scrapping and/or recycling them," Abensour wrote in an email. "Needless to say, allowing Kramden to refurbish those computers and put them directly into the hands of students in need would have allowed us to make huge inroads in combating the homework gap."

Workers and volunteers refurbish computers inside the Kramden Institute warehouse.
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

But those efforts have stalled. The legislation was interpreted so that Kramden would have to buy the computers at market value, according to Abensour, something he says is impossible at their budget.

"Because of how we operate, that doesn't work as we take on the costs associated with refurbishing these machines, identifying students in need, awarding and transporting them, and most importantly, maintaining them, entirely by ourselves," he said.

New legislation has been proposed in the past session that would see Kramden acquire the surplus computers at a lower cost, but that legislation has been caught up in the gridlock between the legislature and governor over the state budget. Abensour says there's no opposition to the legislation, but that it has simply been put on the back burner while bigger fights are waged.

"If it came up for a vote, it would pass through with flying colors, as the earlier version did a couple of years ago," he said.