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Initiative to bridge the digital divide changes lives, one family at a time

Cynthia Villareal has never met Franny Millen. But Franny has helped change her life.

Villareal, a Dollar Store clerk in Cornelius, has five kids in three different schools. When she wanted to talk to their teachers, she would drive to the schools and wait patiently for an appointment. If her kids didn’t finish their work at school, sometimes it just didn’t get done.

And when she wanted to look for a better job for herself, she scoured newspaper want-ads.

Last April, Villareal and her family were the beneficiaries of a program inspired by a 7th-grader and developed with strong Davidson College ties.

They received laptop computers and home broadband through E2D—Eliminate the Digital Divide—a program started by Franny’s father Pat Millen ’86, a sports marketing consultant and Davidson graduate. Its goal is to put computers and Internet access in the hands and homes of students who lack them.

Now Villareal emails her kids’ teachers. She checks job postings online. And she watches her children finish their schoolwork at home. “Whatever needs to be done they do on the computer,” she says.

Connecting to Opportunity

It was in late 2012 that Franny Millen realized that most of her homework assignments at Davidson Elementary required a computer. “I know everybody doesn’t have a computer,” she told her father. “What can we do about it?”

Starting with money from lemonade stands, E2D bought laptops for 54 students at Franny’s school. Now, with the help of corporate partners, it’s given hundreds to needy students across north Mecklenburg County, capturing the attention of educators not only in Mecklenburg but across the state.

“This is a perfect way they can step up and help support our students,” says Tracy Weeks, chief academic and digital learning officer at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

As Villareal’s situation illustrates, the program has gone beyond its original vision of helping students. Instead it’s helping entire families. Parents who never sent an email, searched on Google or surfed the Web are learning to go online.

“The program, which began as a way for all students to thrive, has become an exploration of the way connectivity can serve an entire family,” says Davidson College President Carol Quillen. “It’s no longer about just giving kids computers. It’s about opening up new opportunities for families that could be transformational.”

Villareal and her family were among millions of Americans who found themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide.

With digital phones, smart TVs and free Wi-Fi in the corner Starbucks, Americans are more wired than ever. But the divide stubbornly persists for many. And in an increasingly digital world, where even routine tasks have migrated online, the gap is widening.

In testimony last fall to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, Aaron Smith, senior researcher with the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project, pointed out that 30 percent of Americans lack broadband at home. Half of those don’t use the Internet at all. The other half does but has no home broadband.

That group shares some characteristics. They tend to be under 45, low-income, less well-educated and generally non-white. Asked why they didn’t have Internet service at home, 42 percent cited cost.

Lee Rainie, director of Pew’s Internet and American Life Project, says while the digital divide may have narrowed, its effects have not.

“There are some obvious deficits in your life if you don’t have a connection,” he says. “It’s harder to navigate life. It’s harder to connect to friends, government or high quality health information. If (students) start behind the starting line, it’s going to take them a long time to catch up.”

Leveling the Playing Field

E2D identifies what Pat Millen calls its “client partners” from the rolls of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, a proxy measure of poverty. Recipients, the majority of whom are African American or Hispanic, get a laptop and a year of Internet access for $10 a month.

Since the program’s lemonade stand launch, Lowes has agreed to provide 500 refurbished laptops a year and local cable provider MI-Connection has pledged discount broadband access.

In her first year as principal of Hough High in Cornelius, Laura Rosenbach ’99 identified 75 Hough families who qualified for the program.

“To be honest 75 families was kind of surprising,” says Rosenbach.

“You just kind of assume everybody’s got everything. But there are a lot of families at our school that are struggling to make ends meet.”

It didn’t take her long to see a difference. The number of finished assignments shot up. So did the self-confidence of the students who got new computers.

“They now feel they’re equal to their peers,” Rosenbach says.

Scott Smith has seen what technology can do.

He’s the chief technology officer at the Mooresville Graded School District, just north of Davidson. His district has been a pioneer in digital learning.

It was in 2007 that the district launched its digital conversion project under Dr. Mark Edwards, since recognized as a state and national Superintendent of the Year. Every student in fourth through 12th grade gets a laptop for the school year. Since the program started, the district has become one of the North Carolina’s highest ranked, with rising academic performance and falling drop-out rates.

“It completely levels the playing field and gives every child the same opportunity,” Smith says. We’re preparing kids for the future, not our past. We have a moral imperative to reach every child every day, and this is a way to bring that to life.”

No one can deny the need in North Carolina or in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. In 2011-2012, 56 percent of North Carolina public school students qualified for free or reduced lunch, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In CMS, the number is over 50 percent.

That’s why programs such as E2D are so welcome.

“When the community comes together and says ‘We want our children to have access to digital tools,’ that’s very powerful,” says Valerie Truesdale, chief learning services officer at CMS.

With lemonade sales and private contributions, E2D has raised more than $75,000.

“This community has the ability to solve the digital divide without a dime of taxpayer money,” says Pat Millen. “I don’t care if you’re talking to a Democrat or a tea party person, everybody sees the value of helping people. To help pull another family out of poverty or give them a better chance, that’s not a hard sell.”

A Good Example

The Ada Jenkins Center is housed in a renovated school building not far from Davidson’s campus. There, under the umbrella of E2D, Kelene Lee introduces Hispanic families to the online world.

“My work helps to benefit the entire family, not just the student,” says Lee, a rising Davidson sophomore from Atlanta. “It’s providing a bridge that connects people to this new realm of communication technology that socio-economic and other factors have kept them from accessing. I’m opening doors. It’s fun to see them being introduced to the Internet. It brings joy to a lot of people.”

Franny Millen, who just graduated from eighth grade, is proud of what she’s helped accomplish.

“Sometimes it’s overwhelming to think about how many people we have been able to help so far,” she says. “I hope it encourages other people to do something good for their communities.”

It’s not just people on the receiving end for whom the program has opened doors.

“To me it’s an example of why entrepreneurship and higher education go together,” says Quillen. “You have to be open to the possibilities you don’t see….

“The ultimate goal of E2D should be that we don’t need E2D anymore.”

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