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

By Douglas Hank
Miami Herald

            Miami---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 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.  That discussion 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 $4million 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.

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 discourages teachers from assigning online homework if all students in the class don’t have access to the Internet after school, 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, Fla.  ‘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.  County elementary schools now incorporate the online program called 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.

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.

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.”

Distributed by MCT Information Services