How IPS Plans to Bridge the Digital Divide

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed technology gaps that were putting a generation of Indianapolis Public Schools students at risk. As parents and students enjoy the dwindling days of summer vacation, here’s how the school district plans to bridge the digital divide:

IPS Was E-Failing

At the start of the last school year, IPS had just one internet-ready device for every three students. Statewide for the same period, 64 percent of Indiana’s traditional districts were 1:1 schools, which are pretty much what they sound like: Every single student has a device to use during the day and take home at night.

Then COVID-19 Hit

Forced to turn to e-learning, IPS conducted a survey to assess the technology needs of its students. The results had to be troubling to a school district suddenly required to teach from a distance: 40 percent of responding families lacked access to a device with a keyboard, and about 30 percent had no reliable internet connection. By contrast, a national poll in April by Pew Research Center showed that 21 percent of schoolchildren didn’t have a keyboard device and 22 percent didn’t have internet access.

The Quick Fix Was High-Tech and Old-School

IPS sent laptops to all 4,500 students (mostly high-schoolers) who indicated a need, and provided internet hotspots to anyone lacking them. For its elementary and middle school students, the district went retro and worked from paper packets of assignments.

But it Was a Band-Aid

Without sufficient technology at home, students tend to struggle to finish homework and they get lower grades, which affects how they’re perceived by their peers and teachers, says Jessica Calarco, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University. Her research focuses on that very topic—the impact social inequities can have on families, children, and schools. Negative perceptions in the classroom can have lifelong ramifications for under-resourced students, says Calarco, affecting graduation rates, job opportunities, and future earnings.

The Pandemic Prompted Bigger Steps

“What COVID-19 revealed is the depth of responsibilities that are put on school districts, and in particular our highest-needs school districts, that has very little to do with just teachers instructing students,” says Sarah Robinson Chin, director of strategy and planning for IPS.

Part of the Problem Goes Back to 2015

That’s when Indiana changed the way it funded schools. As the current formula stands, for the last funding cycle, lower-needs schools like Carmel, Zionsville, and Hamilton Southeastern received a higher percent increase in funding than higher-needs schools like IPS. At the same time, IPS is serving a student population with a higher rate of poverty, as well as more students with special needs and English learners than those neighboring schools.

A Lot of IPS Families Can’t Afford the Tech They Suddenly Need

Just 15 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meal services in the Hamilton Southeastern district. At these 1:1 schools, students bring their own devices or pay a fee to rent from HSE. Those additional costs aren’t something IPS can ask families to absorb in a district where 65 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price food because of low income levels, Chin says.

So the District is Lending a Hand

This school year, IPS estimates it will spend $12 million to provide every student with a device—iPads for K–3 and Chromebooks for grades 4–12—and ensure internet access for those who need it.

And Looking for Help Footing the Bill

Part of the money for the program will come from IPS’s operations fund, and the district will issue some debt to cover the rest of the costs. The Indianapolis Public Schools Foundation launched the IPS Equity Fund in April, hoping that private donations will help close the gap.

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault