State Of Tennessee Helps Bridge Digital Divide For Students In Hamilton County

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A network of community partners working to completely bridge the digital divide for Hamilton County students came together to thank state leaders for dedicating more than $3 million in Tennessee Community CARES funding toward the effort to help students during the pandemic.

The new funding helps advance several carefully coordinated initiatives by more than a dozen public-private partners. Hamilton County Schools serves as the hub for reaching the goal of providing all students with internet access - along with the devices needed to learn online. This project is funded under a grant with the State of Tennessee, created to help communities solve obstacles the pandemic has caused.

"We thank Governor Bill Lee, the Tennessee Department of Human Services and all members of the Hamilton County Legislative delegation, especially our state senators, Senator Bo Watson and Senator Todd Gardenhire," said Superintendent Bryan Johnson, Ed.D., Hamilton County Schools. "Their support is a tremendous boost to our public-private initiative, which already includes Hamilton County and the city of Chattanooga along with nonprofits, business funders, and private foundations. The CARES funding is a huge step forward as we work together to bridge the digital divide for all Hamilton County students helping them to become future-ready and prepared for success after graduation."

Through the Tennessee Department of Human Services, The Enterprise Center will receive about $1.5 million to help students continue their studies during the pandemic by providing fiber optic internet connectivity at home for some 28,000 Hamilton County School students - with no charge to families for up to 10 years through HCS EdConnect powered by EPB. At the same time, Public Education Foundation and the Chattanooga Chamber Foundation will use nearly $1.5 million in Tennessee Community CARES funding to provide about 3,200 Chromebooks and tablet devices to help close the device gap, allowing all students to learn from home as schools respond to COVID-19.

"We're making a smart investment in infrastructure, equipment, and devices that will help our students continue to learn through the current crisis," said Senator Watson. Senator Watson served on Governor Lee's Financial Stimulus Accountability Group and helped secure $24.6 million in Tennessee pandemic relief funds to support area nonprofits in providing a wide range of pandemic assistance to local people. The effort to bridge the digital divide speaks to an important priority, said officials. 

"We're also providing our community with durable assets, so we can continue to deliver the online access for learning these students will need for years to come," Senator Watson said. 

Senator Gardenhire agreed, saying, "I'm heartened by the fact that our local public schools and their partners are working to bridge the digital divide in a comprehensive and continuing way. We are using funds in an intelligent and meaningful way that will really make a difference for the people we represent."

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger leads Hamilton County in efforts to fund Hamilton County Schools. Those efforts include funding for student devices and the recent provision of $1.5 million to help build out HCS EdConnect internet connectivity to all student homes, said officials.

"These funds will go a long way to help us reach the goal of providing every HCS student with the online access they need," County Mayor Coppinger said.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke led the city in providing $1.5 million in support for HCS EdConnect, said officials. He said the Chattanooga area is leveraging its existing community-wide fiber optic network to make the project possible. 

"Because EPB led the nation in building out Chattanooga's fiber optic network to every home and business in the Chattanooga area long before the pandemic began, our community is able to respond much more comprehensively to the dramatic upsurge in need for broadband access," Mayor Berke said. "Using our smart city infrastructure in this way has a direct bearing on our students' ability to continue to learn while also giving everyone in their families the critical connectivity they must have for earning and vital services such as telehealth."

Lesley Scearce, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Chattanooga, said these combined efforts highlight a long-standing and vital tradition of community collaboration. United Way is administering the Community CARES grant funds to bridge the digital divide, as well as to other area nonprofits for pandemic relief received through DHS and Tennessee Community CARES.

"In greater Chattanooga, we've built a culture upon the foundational idea that 'We live better when we live united,'” Ms. Scearce said. “Collaboration around pressing and timely community issues, as seen with HCS EdConnect, will unite people and resources to build a stronger community both for today and the long-term.”

Solving the device deficit
Building on previous efforts by Hamilton County Schools over several years to provide Chromebooks or tablets to Hamilton County’s 3rd through 12th graders on a 1-to-1 basis, the Public Education Foundation and the Chattanooga Chamber Foundation plan to dedicate their Tennessee Community CARES funding to provide 3,200 Hamilton County students in grades K-2 with Chromebooks and tablets. The funding will also cover additional programs and other student resources.

“Public education is the talent development engine for our community,” said Christy Gillenwater with the Chattanooga Chamber Foundation. “Providing students with devices will further our efforts to ensure our residents have skills for the new economy.” At the outset of the COVID crisis, the Chamber Foundation engaged local businesses in providing more than $100,000 in funding for devices.

PEF’s Stacy Lightfoot said older students need devices too. “Some first-year students without a computer are turning in college papers and doing work from their cell phones,” Ms. Lightfoot said. “This funding will go a long way towards helping to provide laptops for these recent Hamilton County graduates to ensure they are equipped for college success.”

Providing fiber optic internet for all students
Tennessee Community Cares funding will also provide The Enterprise Center with $1.52 million in support for HCS EdConnect powered by EPB. Launched in July, this program provides home-based fiber optic internet connectivity at no charge to the families of as many as 28,000 Hamilton County students who meet the federal economic benchmarks for free and reduced lunch. The service includes fiber optic broadband speeds of at least 100 Mbps and no data caps along with a WiFi router. The Enterprise Center and Tech Goes Home Chattanooga will also play a significant role in facilitating communications and delivering technical support for HCS EdConnect.

"Providing access means much more than delivering service, and we’re working to be sure students, and their parents know how to take full advantage of this connectivity as well as provide the support they need when they run into challenges," said Deb Socia, president of The Enterprise Center. 

“Digital equity is at the core of The Enterprise Center's mission. By focusing on how we can provide comprehensive access to our neighbors who struggle to gain and maintain internet service, we create an invaluable source of stability — and opportunity — for families and for our community,” Ms. Socia said.

As of the July launch, HCS EdConnect partners had already raised $6 million toward upfront infrastructure investment to make the project work. The founding funding partners are Hamilton County, city of Chattanooga, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation, and the Smart City Venture Fund, which includes Benwood Foundation, Community Foundation, Footprint Foundation, and Robert L. And Katherina Maclellan Foundation. With the addition of Tennessee Community Cares funding, the current funding total stands at $7.5 million of the projected $8.2 million needed.

“EPB is thankful to have so many community partners at all levels joining us as we pursue our mission of enhancing the quality of life and economic growth of our community,” said David Wade, president and CEO of EPB. “Supporting educational attainment is one of the cornerstones of EPB’s efforts because it lays a foundation for everything else.”

Since HCS EdConnect was launched at the end of July, EPB has made rapid progress in building out the service so that it now reaches more than 7,300 students in more than 4,500 households. EPB continues to install more eligible customers as quickly as possible.

Mr. Wade also encouraged eligible families to call EPB to schedule their installation. “We’re ready to install HCS EdConnect service to thousands of additional families, but we’re having trouble reaching some of them,” Mr. Wade said. “We invite every family who opted in by responding to the survey Hamilton County Schools sent out to call us to schedule installation anytime.”

HCS EdConnect powered by EPB is at least four times faster than typical educational access offerings from other providers, and it’s the only one that delivers symmetrical speeds (same speed for uploads and downloads) with no data caps. HCS EdConnect families will have more than enough broadband capacity and data to participate in video-based learning and other high bandwidth educational applications.

Thanks to Funding Partners

·               Tennessee Department of Human Services - Tennessee Community CARES

·               BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation

·               City of Chattanooga

·               Hamilton County

·               Smart City Venture Fund

·               Benwood Foundation

·               Community Foundation

·               Footprint Foundation

·               Robert L. And Katherina Maclellan Foundation

How families can access HCS EdConnect powered by EPB
Parents who have opted in for HCS EdConnect are asked to call EPB at 648-1372 anytime. You may also contact your child’s school for more information and to learn how to qualify.


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