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Overcoming the Digital Divide, Step One: Increasing Funding for Technology and Internet Access

By Alina O'Donnell
 | Aug 21, 2017

This is the first installment of a four-part, how-to blog series on overcoming the digital divide, an extension of ILA’s latest brief.

Kids With iPadsInternet access and equipment are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creating or growing a classroom technology program. Once the infrastructure is in place, schools and districts will continue to stretch their dollars for maintenance, training, technical support, software updates, and more.

Despite shrinking resources, savvy educators are still finding ways to bring technology into the classroom—and you can too. Here’s how.

Reprioritize existing funds

Seven years ago, Meriden Public Schools, an urban school district in Connecticut where more than 70% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, didn’t have a single device program. Today, all 8,000 students across 12 schools have access to high-speed Wi-Fi, 1:1 devices, online classes, adaptive software, a peer-to-peer tech buddies program, and even full-time technology integration specialists.

Meriden Public Schools has since been named a District of Distinction by District Administration and one of its elementary schools was named a Model School by the International Center for Leadership in Education. The district was also featured in Edutopia's Schools That Work series.

Not bad for a district that hasn’t seen an increase in municipal funding in eight years.

So, what’s their secret?

If you ask Barbara Haeffner, the school’s director of curriculum and instructional technology, she’ll say it was making technology a priority.

“Some of our students don’t have any access at home like their peers in the suburbs,” she says. “What we provide them really opens up opportunities.”

Haeffner says once the district invested in 1:1 devices, they began to save money on textbook, paper, and printing costs.

“Anytime we were looking to buy textbooks, we said, ‘OK, is there a digital component that can better meet needs of our students?’” she says.

Apply for grants

As Meriden Public Schools’ digital transformation started to take shape, the administrators eventually looked for outside funding sources—supplementing their budget makeover with grant money from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and Rise Education Foundation.

According to Haeffner, the key is finding a grant that matches your district’s specific goals and objectives.

“Grant funding has to be aligned with the work we’re doing in the district. We really look at the district’s goals and where we’re going, and if it’s aligned, we’re on board. Otherwise we don’t pursue those opportunities,” she says.

Applying for grants can be a tedious, time-consuming, and continuous process. Schools that are working to build ongoing tech programs may want to consider hiring a full- or part-time grant writer.

Schools can also save time by taking advantage of easy-to-use grant databases to search for specific types of grants, such as:

Procure government funding

In September, the U.S. Department of Education will finalize state accountability plans for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). According to the Center for Digital Education (CDE), the law authorizes new funding streams that can potentially help states and districts invest in technology. The funding allowances include:

  • A new Title IV block grant program called the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant program through which districts can use up to 60% of funding for innovative technology strategies;
  • Title II funding for professional development that focuses on technology and the use of data;
  • and Title I flexibility, which provides new requirements and opportunities that could motivate states/districts to concentrate more on technology as part of broader initiatives.

The CDE published a 40-page handbook to help states and districts unlock ESSA’s potential. Titled “ESSA, EdTech and the Future of Education,” the handbook provides guidance on “how to take advantage of these new opportunities and suggestions on how to integrate them with a broader strategic vision to guide teaching and learning.”


Fundraising has come a long way from box top clippings and bake sales. Today, anyone from venture capitalists to Facebook friends of friends can transform a classroom with just a few clicks. Easy, cost-effective, and engaging fundraising ideas include:

  • Crowdfunding: Programs like Donors Choose and Digital Wish eliminate the tedious search process by connecting teachers with prospective donors. Typically, teachers create a classroom profile and a “wish list” of technologies they need for a specific classroom project. Donors then give to the project of their choice. Teachers can also share the crowdfunding page with their personal networks through social media.
  • Recycling fundraisers: Classrooms can also raise money (and help save the environment!) through FundingFactory, a free program that encourages the donation of empty toner and ink cartridges. As the items are recycled, the school earns points that can later be exchanged for educational technology or cash. Check out Scholastica Travel Inc.’s “Awesome Fundraising Ideas: Recycling Fundraisers for School Trips” for a list of similar recycling fundraisers.

Apply for teacher awards

Many teacher award programs, such as the NEA Foundation’s Awards for Teaching Excellence, grant winners cash prizes to spend in their classrooms. Check out The New Teacher Project’s (TNTP) list of 10 Awards for Great Teachers for more 

Secure corporate partnerships

Digital Promise, a nonprofit authorized by the United States Congress to spur innovation in education and improve the opportunity to learn for all through technology and research, was founded in the strength of public–private partnerships, according to Erica Lawton, senior communications manager. 

“As an organization, we see this as a community issue,” says Lawton. “You need the partnership of multiple stakeholders to tackle these challenges.”

Inside Philanthropy encourages schools to look for regional or state employers who “need a robust, smart workforce in your community.” Even mega-corporations such as Motorola, American Honda, and Chevron take community-based approaches to STEM K–12 giving, often offering small- and mid-sized grants in cities where they operate.

These win-win partnerships are good for both the businesses and the students—schools get a chance to experiment and innovate, while businesses practice corporate responsibility and “road-test” their products.

Looking ahead

While charitable grants, fundraising campaigns, and corporate partnerships offer patchwork solutions to the digital divide—Haeffner believes these means are only as strong as the school’s leadership.

“Our teachers are our most important asset; without them we wouldn’t be able to make these gains,” she says. “Salaries are one of our big expenses because we need people to be there with our students.”

With teachers’ support, students are not stopping at mastering these digital skills; they are taking their digital learning into their own hands.

“We have teachers who are truly facilitators now; the students will come in and say, ‘Hey, I found something better,’” Haeffner says. “As our students are becoming more tech-savvy, they are really pushing teachers as well.

To explore the rest of this four-part series, visit the links below:

Overcoming the Digital Divide, Step Two: Critically Frame 21st-Century Skills

Overcoming the Digital Divide, Step Three: Provide Resources

Overcoming the Digital Divide, Step Four: Advocate

Alina O'Donnell is the editor of Literacy Daily.

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