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When the ‘homework gap’ hits home: How rural Pa. students learn with limited broadband

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Pennsylvania Influencer Project

Rural Pennsylvania faces a shortage of broadband access, and the digital divide affects education, health care, property values and quality of life in our communities. The Pennsylvania Influencer Project, a multi-part series from the Centre Daily Times and its parent company McClatchy, examines the challenges and potential solutions to the problem.

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When many high school students get home from after-school activities, they open their laptops and start in on the homework they have due the next day.

But Logan Snyder, 17, a high school junior living in rural Madisonburg, has had to travel to his mom’s office eight miles away to complete video assignments or sit in McDonald’s to download online textbooks and large files he needs for school.

“There’s nothing quick,” he said of his internet connection at home. “I can’t just check my grades quickly. I always have to check if the internet is on or good. I can’t check my email as fast as everyone else.”

Rural students face the ‘homework gap’

Snyder is one of almost 340,000 youths in Pennsylvania who do not have access to a reliable broadband connection, according to 2010 American Community Survey responses through the U.S. Census Bureau. Slow broadband speeds or nonexistent connections restrict these students’ ability to complete assignments or put in extra study time, in what the Federal Communications Commission calls the “homework gap.”

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Logan Snyder, a junior at Penns Valley High School, tries to load his school email and assignments from his home in Madisonburg on March 19, 2019. Snyder’s family uses a cellular data hotspot for their internet connection, which leaves doing school work, especially with videos, near impossible. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Across the United States, seven in 10 teachers assign homework that requires internet access, but one in three households does not have access, according to Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the FCC, who coined the term “homework gap” to describe the hardships this places on some rural students.

“There are 12 million students in this country in rural and urban areas that don’t have internet access at home, and when they don’t, they don’t do their nightly school work,” she said.

For Snyder, it means he relies on the daily 40 minutes allotted by Penns Valley Area High School called “Ram Time” to complete all of his homework.

During Ram Time from 2:35 to 3:15 p.m., Snyder can use the school’s internet connection, which he estimates has download speeds 10 minutes faster than the one at his house. Students may use Ram Time to complete homework, finish in-class assignments or conference with teachers for extra help, said Nate Althouse, Penns Valley communications director. Ram Time wasn’t specifically designed to give students internet time, since it has been in place since the days before Penns Valley issued computers to every student, he said.

Deneen Keller, a middle school learning support teacher in the Penns Valley district, said that a “decent amount” of the students she works with don’t have reliable internet at home — in most cases they are relying on DSL service, a data hotspot connected to a cellular network or a parent’s cellphone data plan.

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Penns Valley Area High School is located in rural Centre County, Pennsylvania, where many students don’t have reliable internet at home. Mehdi Salehi For the CDT

At Penns Valley, where at least 8% of students have only dial-up internet access at home, many teachers don’t assign internet-based homework. The district’s handbook suggests that teachers “adjust assignments and strategies to reflect the limited availability of broadband access in our area, (encourage) students to use the Internet while at school (when needed) and use the software at home to complete their tasks.”

But in an increasingly digital world, that’s becoming more difficult.

An online math practice program Keller gives her students, for example, can be completed during Ram Time, but “if you have someone who’s struggling and needs a bit more practice, they do end up taking it home,” Keller said.

And for students who get let out of school early for sports games or need to meet with a teacher during Ram Time, that 40 minutes is not always enough time, Snyder said. During baseball season in the spring, he said, he leaves school during Ram Time twice or more a week.

Access to home broadband provides a measurable difference in test scores, according to a 2015 study from the National Center for Education Statistics. On average, math and reading scores were almost 20 points higher for eighth graders in rural areas who reported having access to internet at home than those who did not.

College courses, applications raise the stakes

Lanna Rummel, a junior at Penns Valley who lives in the Seven Mountains area, said she tries to get all of her homework done at school because her connection, through Verizon DSL, is so poor. But at the beginning of the year, when she was taking three difficult courses, she clocked about two hours of homework each night.

Doing her homework during Ram Time, she said, feels “like I’m rushed sometimes, but you know I feel like all of the students kind of feel rushed a lot.”

Rummel, like many other 16-year-olds, is busy with after-school activities and a part-time job. She recalled a time during her freshman year when, after getting home from activities at 9:30 p.m., she realized she had a group project due the next day.

The many tabs she had open for research slowed her internet speeds, and her mom was doing taxes online and couldn’t get off the internet.

“I just started to cry,” said Rummel. “I’m like, ‘When am I going to get this done?’”

Next year, Rummel is taking a college science class for credit and applying to colleges. She’s nervous about how her unreliable home broadband will affect her ability to complete assignments.

“I’m very frustrated,” she said. “Like, I just want (the internet) to work. You know, these things are available to us; why aren’t they working?”

Miles away, worlds apart

Amish buggies and rolling fields are a common sight outside the Snyders’ home in Madisonburg. In the summer, the peaceful quiet is replaced by the roaring of motorcycles parading down Route 445, a popular scenic route that runs right through town.

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Madisonburg is 22 miles from Penn State’s University Park campus, but residents face challenges with internet access. Mehdi Salehi For the CDT

A mere 22 miles from Penn State’s University Park campus, Madisonburg might as well be a world away from the campus where high-speed internet is standard and fiber-optic internet is starting to take hold.

If Snyder has a large project with video or large files to download, he doesn’t even bother starting it at home, where he’s constantly arguing with his parents about the best place to stand in the house to get the best connection using their cellular data hotspot.

An aspiring college football player, Snyder said he can’t access his Huddle videos — videos of his plays during football games and practice — to edit and send off to colleges for recruiting purposes. For most assignments, he either has to factor in extra time or try to download all materials at school.

“It’s just another thing you have to think about,” said Snyder.

Ian Dodson, a senior at Penns Valley, feels the same way. Living in Spring Mills, the Dodsons have switched internet providers more times than he can count on one hand. The latest provider gives them 4 to 5 Mbps internet speeds — enough for one person to stream music and browse the internet.

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Penns Valley High School senior Ian Dodson pulls up his Google Classroom account from the library of the school on March 25, 2019. Though the school gives every student a laptop, internet connections at home vary for their students. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Dodson was accepted into Penn State’s engineering program to start in fall 2019. He said he’s looking forward to the faster internet speeds on campus next year.

Though his parents live just 16 miles from Penn State, Dodson said he won’t come home every weekend since he knows much of his college coursework will require a high-speed internet connection.

But for David Keller, the broadband problems didn’t stop after he graduated from high school.

Now a senior at Penn State Altoona, the Penns Valley graduate travels roughly 60 miles to his parents’ house in the Seven Mountains most weekends to visit family and help out around the house.

Penns Valley teacher Deneen Keller, David’s mom, said their internet download speeds are anywhere between 0.5 and 1 Mbps and the upload speed is 0.3 Mbps, according to a recent broadband test she ran on her computer.

That doesn’t meet the Pennsylvania definition for broadband (1.5 Mbps download and 128 Kbps upload), let alone the federal definition of 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed.

As an environmental studies major, Keller does research on amphibians at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center and Stone Valley Forest in Huntingdon County for school credit. But his fieldwork involves a significant amount of data collection, data sharing and analysis.

“To load very large documents with tons of data on the internet speeds we have at home it’s near impossible,” he said. He usually does fieldwork on the weekends and leaves the data crunching, analysis and sharing for during the week while he’s on campus in Altoona — where he has access to much faster internet speeds.

Weekends at home, then, are mostly spent at his sister and her husband’s house in Centre Hall. Internet speeds are much faster there compared with the Seven Mountains area, and there are more providers competing to provide service.

Keller said he feels like he has missed out on some important learning experiences due to the poor quality broadband at his parents’ house.

During the summer, he was doing research work at Shaver’s Creek and also taking organic chemistry online. If he went straight from work to his parents’ house, he could catch the start of the livestreamed lecture and question and answer sessions his professor hosted.

That is, if the internet cooperated. He tried it twice and the lecture wouldn’t load, he said.

“I never once that entire summer got an actual class,” he said. “I definitely think I could’ve done better in the class if I was able to watch and interact with the professor.”

Losing the youth population

Reliable internet is a selling point and often a deciding factor for people in his generation, said Keller.

“I grew up (in the Seven Mountains) my entire life. I love where I live, but to sit back and say internet wouldn’t be an aspect I’d be thinking about I’d totally be lying,” he said. “... When I’m able to afford to, I’ll most definitely look (for housing) somewhere else.”

Surveys conducted by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania in 2010 showed that most rural youth like living in their communities and believe them to be good places to raise a family, but are not optimistic about their higher education or economic prospects if they stay, prompting “out migration.” Although many respondents said they’d like to move back eventually, one of their main requirements to do so is having reliable internet service, said Barry Denk, director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

Broadband access also raises one’s chance of finding employment, according to a 2016 brief from the Council of Economic Advisors. Research has shown that applying to jobs online leads to faster re-employment for unemployed individuals. In fact, the brief stated, an unemployed person’s chance of landing a job in a month jumps 4 percent if they live in a house with internet versus one without.

Doug and Sandy Dodson, Ian Dodson’s parents, said they’re concerned their sons might not move back to the area or visit after graduation because of their slow broadband connection.

“I do actually kind of fear that ... (Ian) is going to like that internet connection speed and he’s going to get hooked,” said Doug Dodson. “He might just say, ‘I have too much to do; I don’t want to come out this weekend.’ ”

Reporters Tim Johnson and Lauren Muthler contributed to this report.

This series was produced with financial support from the Knight Foundation.

Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.
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