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How the Rochester City School District is tackling the digital divide

Rochester City School District Interim Superintendent Dan Lowengard and Chief Information Officer Annemarie Lehner
James Brown WXXI
Rochester City School District Interim Superintendent Dan Lowengard and Chief Information Officer Annemarie Lehner

The Rochester City School District estimates that two out of every five district students don't have access to internet at home, let alone high speed internet.

The district is tackling the issue by offering roughly 8,000 Rochester City School District high schoolers at least 10 gigabytes of high speed WiFi per month, and a Chromebook by December.

The district said that even students who have one computer with internet access will be offered take home chromebooks and MiFi units. MiFi devices are portable hotspots that offer people internet access.

The move marks the district's latest effort to help students outside the classroom as well as within it. Rochester Board of Education President Van White said this approach is increasingly necessary.

"We are often asked to do things that go beyond our original job description, we're required to feed children, we're required to make sure that they feel safe, we're required to make sure that they have their medicines, and sometimes we balk at that but that is the nature of our task." said White.

The Chromebooks are being paid for by the district and the 1 Million Project. That's a non-profit organization that said it has given internet access to more than 200,000 students nationwide.

The Rochester school district's Chief Information Officer Annmarie Lehner is leading the local effort.

She said the district will monitor the amount of time that the kids use the Chromebooks and internet, and the computers will also filter out explicit content like they do in schools. The district has already discussed how to handle damaged Chromebooks through discussions with other school districts. Lehner said the Rochester district is buying plenty of backups.

"There really is no limit to the amount of 9th through 12th grade students that we can provide devices to," said Lehner. "As long as the student is using them."

The district is using this initiative as a teaching opportunity. A group of elementary school kids from #4 and #50 schools are developing tutorials for using the machines.

Rochester City School student Chelsea Buba
Credit James Brown WXXI
Rochester City School student Chelsea Buba

12-year-old Chelsea Buba is apart of the group. She said the chromebook has helped her so far.

"We actually experienced taking the Chromebook home for a weekend," said Buba. "And it actually helped me with my work. To like finish up quickly. So I think it will help students 9 through 12 because they get more essays than we do."

Buba and other kids shot video, directed and edited the tutorials on the Chromebooks and built a website to house them as part of a New York State Education Department contest with 14 other upstate school districts.

The district said it plans to distribute the Chromebooks by December.

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.