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CHCCS program provides laptops to at-risk students

Darren Bell, creator of Chapel Hill Carrboro City School's Community Connection Program speaks at Smith Middle School on Feb. 5.
Darren Bell, creator of Chapel Hill Carrboro City School's Community Connection Program speaks at Smith Middle School on Feb. 5.

“I was raised by a single mother,” she said. “The money my mom makes only helps us pay for what we need, but to have a laptop or internet is difficult.”

Ramirez, now a senior at Chapel Hill High School, had to do all of her homework at school, but limited time to use school computers made that difficult.

“I would have to get to school before school started, and the earliest I could get here is 8 a.m., and school starts at 8:45, so I have 45 minutes to finish my work,” she said. “Or I stay after school until 5 or 5:30 p.m. writing papers or taking video notes that my teacher used to give.”

Everything changed in 2014, when Ramirez received a laptop and free internet access through Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools’ Community Connection Program — a partnership with Verizon Wireless and UNC’s Technology Without Borders.

The district established the program to address the digital divide by providing laptops and internet access to at-risk students. Currently in its second phase, the program will give 120 Chromebooks and Verizon Wi-Fi Jetpacks to students in the system’s four high schools next week.

In 2013, the N.C. General Assembly passed a law shifting textbook funding to digital learning by 2017. Public school students will have to rely on the internet for learning materials.

Darren Bell, manager of the program, held a press conference Thursday.

“The bottom line is without technology at home, students are really falling behind,” Bell said at the conference.

He said 10 to 15 percent of students in the district do not have adequate internet access.

“Some students may have phones that don’t work, and they’re writing papers on that phone,” Bell said. “Students will get by, but is that fair?”

Students will be chosen by their respective teachers based on their needs. The Verizon Wi-Fi, which works like a hotspot, will enable students to connect to the company’s 4G LTE network anywhere.

“The percentage of work students have to do online now is close to a 100 percent,” Bell said. “In 2017, the textbooks are actually going away, and with that, now you really need to have this technology on hand.”

Superintendent Tom Forcella said the district is focused on closing the achievement gap.

“One gap that became apparent was the vast growing technology gap,” he said. “There are those who are digitally connected and those who are not. Until we fix that gap, we cannot expect to close the achievement gap between those two groups.”

Now that Ramirez has her own laptop and internet service, she’s thinking big. She’s already taking some college classes at Durham Technical Community College and is using her computer to apply to other college programs.

“It was very exciting because I was not expecting to have a laptop,” she said. “I’m very happy; it’s helping me a lot.”

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