An All-Out Effort for Equity in Education
DU doctoral students ensure their students don’t miss out on the digital classroom
Alfredo and Molly Pargas, both doctoral students in the University of Denver’s Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program, have a containment strategy for the coronavirus.
They’re not trying to stop the virus’ spread. Instead, they’re trying to check its impact in the Colorado Springs elementary school where they work with English language learners.
“The coronavirus really negatively affected every stakeholder,” Alfredo says of public schools in general and of their school, Keller Elementary, in particular. When public schools in Colorado shut down at spring break in March, teachers had to figure out how to instruct via a video conferencing program new to many of them. Meanwhile, students and their families had to turn their lives upside down to download various programs and apps, log in on schedule and participate via a platform designed not for exuberant school kids but for corporate meetings.
It was a challenging experience for everyone, but for many Keller students, participation wasn’t even possible, much less convenient. With outdated or no technology, with fleeting or no Wi-Fi access, they were locked out of the virtual classroom.
“When you run into the issue of a family with five kids trying to share one smart phone, that’s not really access,” Molly says.
It wasn’t long after online learning began that Alfredo and Molly noticed that many of their ELL students weren’t tuning in to the virtual assemblies or any of the four weekly online classes slated for each grade. With three elementary school children of their own, Molly and Alfredo knew how important it was that students showed up for all the classes and events, not just to participate in learning but also to connect with their community.
“We knew right off the bat that we had students who didn’t have good technology, if they had technology,” Alfredo says. “So we decided to do an equity audit of the technology. I called up all the families and figured out who had Wi-Fi, [who had a computer] and who didn’t.”
The audit revealed some disturbing facts. “We figured out that in K-3, we had about 30 kids that did not have one-to-one technology and really needed it,” Alfredo says.
Distressed by this finding and its ramifications, Alfredo and Molly decided to acquire the technology themselves. They took $1,000 of their coronavirus stimulus payment from the federal government and purchased Kindles for their students. At Molly’s urging, they solicited additional funds from relatives and their fellow teachers.
“It didn’t occur to me that anybody else would want to help, but I’m glad I [asked] because we had about 14 other people who contributed money,” Alfredo says. All told, they had enough funds for 30 tablets.
Once the tablets arrived, it fell to Alfredo to make them operational. “As they were coming in, I was programming each one and going house-to-house showing the families how to use them and showing them the apps,” he recalls. With the state on lockdown and with the coronavirus making more and more Coloradans seriously ill, Alfredo took all the recommended precautions, wearing a mask, sanitizing the equipment and making sure each family was comfortable with his presence.
That might not have met with an epidemiologist’s full approval, but to Alfredo and Molly, the alternative was unacceptable. “It’s either somebody goes in and helps out or they’re just going to have to wait until August to participate?” he asks.
The couple’s involvement didn’t end once the tablets were delivered. When the families lacked Wi-Fi services, Alfredo helped them sign up and create all the necessary passwords. And when problems invariably arose — think onscreen messages rejecting a password or notifications bleating about a failed connection — Alfredo donned his tech-support hat and responded to telephoned pleas for help. Given that the parents involved often spoke very little English, these calls could be challenging. Alfredo speaks Spanish, but not Mam (spoken by many immigrants from Guatemala) or Punjabi. Nonetheless, using the students as go-betweens, he was able to overcome linguistic barriers and help families negotiate their issues.
In no time, his work paid off. “One by one, they started showing up to all the classes,” Alfredo says.
And that’s no small matter, says Kristina Hesbol, an assistant professor with the Morgridge College of Education program where the Pargases are pursuing their studies. “Alfredo and Molly model in life what they teach in their classrooms. Each believes deeply in issues of equity, and that every child deserves access to high-quality, best-practice instruction. The technology they provided for their students is a reminder that each child, as well as their family, is an important member of the learning community,” she says, noting that without the Pargases’ hard work and generosity, their students might well have fallen through the cracks.
Looking back on the intense effort required to ensure equitable access to the digital classroom, the Pargases hope their efforts will limit the so-called summer slide, the erosion of academic gains made over the prior year. Typically, Alfredo says, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds experience a more dramatic slide than their middle-class counterparts, who often spend their summers in enriching camps or on stimulating vacations. Keller’s English language learners may not have those opportunities, but with their tablets, they can explore sites, play engaging games and connect with their friends.
“The cool thing about the technology is it's theirs. It’s theirs forever,” Alfredo says. With any luck, their newfound online access will keep their skills sharp and keep them excited about school.
“I want to see them come back [to school] successful,” Alfredo says. “I don’t want to see them come back hurting more than when they left.”