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Chicago offers more details on how qualifying families can sign up for free internet plan

Young girl using a tablet.
Digital access has been a bigger roadblock in some Chicago neighborhoods than others.
Igor Starkov/Unsplash

Chicago Public Schools released more details Wednesday about its plan to connect 100,000 low-income families to free internet, saying it will lean on more than 30 community organizations to assist with outreach.

The district said it will track those efforts closely with a new data dashboard, but it wasn’t able to provide numbers yet on how many families so far have signed up. The $50 million plan, called Chicago Connected, was released in late June.

Adrian Segura, the deputy chief of the district’s community engagement department, said Wednesday that families can call the district’s IT department at 773-417-1060 if they have questions or to see if they qualify.

The community groups will be paid through the school district’s philanthropic arm, called the Children First Fund. In addition to calling and sending letters to students’ homes, community organizers will assist with training parents and students on how to use the Google suite. (Find the full list of organizations and neighborhoods below.)

District leaders recently said that schools will transition to the Google platform by fall so that administrators can more closely and consistently track who’s logging on and turning in assignments.

Chicago Public Schools promoted low-cost internet plans offered by Comcast and other providers in the spring, and it held some virtual training on the Google platform, said Segura. But his department still observed gaps in who was logging on.

For some families, the free internet plans offered by the providers sounded “too good to be true,” said Segura. “That trust factor is important. Who are the trusted messengers? Principals, who will be part of our support system, the district at large, and then there are local community organizations who know their communities best.”

“The reality is that Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and community organizations understand the unique fabric of those neighborhoods,” he said.

Digital access has been a bigger roadblock in some Chicago neighborhoods than others. An April report said that one in five students in public schools lacked broadband access at home; areas with the greatest connectivity issues were in predominantly Black neighborhoods on the Southwest Side.

Nearly half of school-age children in West Englewood lacked broadband access, the highest percentage of the city’s 77 neighborhoods. That was followed by Englewood (38%), Auburn Gresham (38%), and North Lawndale (37%).

While other school districts bought hot spots and deployed buses with routers, Chicago concentrated its early efforts on device distribution, handing out more than 100,000 Chromebooks and iPads to students and limiting hot spot deployment to homeless students. Otherwise, when it came to broadband access, schools largely steered students to a 60-days free offer from Comcast.

The four-year Chicago Connected program will be underwritten in the first two years by several philanthropies and private donations. President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, are among the contributors.

Much of the outreach will happen in August, with a goal of signing up as many families by the start of school as possible, said Segura.

Just how much improved broadband access will impact participation in the fall remains to be seen. The school district plans to have students return to school buildings two days a week in the fall, with the majority of learning taking place remotely in every grade except for pre-kindergarten.

The school district released detailed data on digital learning in May, which showed nearly four out of five students were logging on. But numbers dipped lower for some of the city’s most vulnerable student populations, such as special education students and English language learners. Analysis of the data by Chalkbeat Chicago showed that, by the end of May, about 2,300 students could not be reached at all.

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