How Black Rural Americans Navigate Internet Issues

How Black Rural Americans Navigate Internet Issues

This is the second story in Capital B’s “Disconnected: Rural Black America and the Digital Divide” project, which explores the disparate effects of broadband accessibility on Black Americans in the rural South. This project is made possible by a grant from The Center for Rural Strategies and Grist. You can read our first story, “Digital Redlining and the Black Rural South,” here.

SELMA, Ala. — On a warm afternoon in September, residents sit outside the Selma Dallas County Library, or in the parking lot in their cars, to connect their mobile phones to the library’s hotspot.

It’s rather quiet except for the sounds of muddled conversations and car engines in this Alabama town that became an epicenter for a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. Less than a mile away from the library is the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of “Bloody Sunday” where 600 people were brutally battered and beaten by police officers for marching to secure voting rights. Nearly 60 years later, residents in the 84% Black town say they still struggle to obtain a basic service: adequate internet access.

Crystal Drye, who has worked at the library since the days of typewriters, says this is the norm. For some, it’s too costly to subscribe to internet service, the speeds are too slow, or they lack the skills to navigate an online landscape. As a solution, they stop by the library, said Drye, who serves as the technology director.

She knew the service became critical when residents came to watch funeral services, hop on Zoom calls, or watch graduation ceremonies. Even homeschooled students often utilize the resources. The library also purchased laptops and mobile hotspots to assist older residents and people with disabilities at their residences.

“I’ve taken our laptops to the nursing home so that a person can stream [church] service on Sunday,” Drye told Capital B. “I’ve taken it to a person to use to order their groceries when they need to because maybe they can’t drive to get it. … It’s nice that we can be a one-stop shop.”

This is a similar reality for millions of residents living without high-speed internet — especially Black folks in the rural South, where the digital divide is the greatest. In this region, about 38% of Black households don’t have home internet, a higher percentage than white people in the same region and the national average, a 2021 report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found. In Dallas County, where Selma is located, 17% of households do not have internet access, the same percentage statewide.

Read more: Digital Redlining and the Black Rural South 

Over four months, I made several trips across Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi and spoke to about 30 residents, experts, and advocates. Here’s how the digital divide is disrupting their everyday lives.

The high costs of low speeds

When Hans Hageman moved from New York to the Mississippi Delta to lead the Tutwiler Community Education Center last year, he didn’t anticipate his internet would affect his productivity. On a daily basis, he juggles between whether his home in Rome, an unincorporated community, or the education center in Tutwiler would be better suited for Zoom or phone calls.

He’s missed out on potential funding opportunities because he can’t upload grant applications online due to slow speeds.

“It’s always top three on the list of, ‘Is this going to work today?’” Hageman said. “I have a meeting this weekend and I have to be prepared to close my stuff and drive real fast to see if I get a better connection to make a $25,000 ask to a foundation. I could be much more productive if I wasn’t doing that.”

He’s also noticed how the inadequate service limits opportunities for the youth to participate in virtual or global activities. Hageman signed up his students for a digital sports tournament to compete with youth nationwide. During a Zoom training ahead of the tournament, his students kept “dropping off of the call” due to bad internet connections, which forced them to miss out.

Some of the kids in the 79% Black town of 3,000, want to pursue careers in content creation, media, and photography. They have dreams of being fashion designers, chefs, and entrepreneurs. He’s also working to put together a robotics program and a drone pilot program. In the back of his mind, Hageman knows they “don’t have the bandwidth to pull this off” because of the challenges with broadband.

Unfortunately, it adds to the many reasons why they want to leave their town — a place described as a food, job, and medical desert. The only place to get food is the Double Quick gas station.

“When you’re talking to the kids, none of them want to stay, and some of it is because of their access,” Hageman told Capital B. “It breaks my heart because when they go off, they are having to play catch up.”

Despite the barriers, Hageman is on a mission to figure it out.

On a recent Saturday afternoon in November, Hans Hageman opens the gymnasium so kids can play basketball. (Charles Coleman)

At the height of the pandemic, nonprofit leader Gloria Dickerson learned that many families in her hometown of Drew, Mississippi — which is about 16 miles from Tutwiler and 11 miles from Rome — didn’t have access to computers or internet at home due to affordability.

The Sunflower County School District provided one mobile hotspot per household and one tablet per child. The costs of insurance — $5 for hotspot and $25 per tablet — rested on families. In households with multiple children, the fees were too costly, and one hotspot was simply not enough. Some children could not complete schoolwork at home, which caused some students to fall further behind, she said.

“Every child needs a computer at home. I see these computers as for information, but I also see it as a learning tool for the younger generation … to keep up with what’s going on in the world. Keep up with their homework. It’s just a necessity,” Dickerson said. “We can’t do it and expect these kids to thrive.”

Gloria Dickerson (center) shares the challenges of broadband availability in Drew, Mississippi, her hometown. (Aallyah Wright)

Dickerson, who runs We2gether Creating Change in downtown Drew, opened her doors for children to use computers, and purchased iPads for every student in her program. At her building, she had a stable internet connection. About five minutes away at her home, her internet service was poor.

“It got so bad that I couldn’t watch TV. Every 10 minutes, it would go off and say it couldn’t connect. I’d call, and they’ll say, ‘Well, we can’t find anything wrong with it, maybe you need to just hit the reset button,’” Dickerson said. “You just get so disconnected. Every time you start to send an email, all of sudden it goes down in the middle of sending an email. Did that email send? Should I resend the email? It’s a mess.”

The service, which costs $75 monthly, should be better for how expensive it is, she told Capital B in September. A month before, she says, a technician finally came out, after a year and a half of calls.

Community resources aren’t available to all

In Devereux, Georgia, where Gloria Simmons has lived for over 50 years, there’s not much except a Dollar General and a few churches. She often travels for basic services, but this year, she decided the internet could help cut down on trips, specifically to pay bills and access bank statements.

One of the reasons she held out on getting the service was her lack of digital skills. Instead of relying on her daughter, who works full time, Simmons wanted to learn how to navigate the internet herself.

“We get complacent and dependent upon others. I like to try to set it up where I can at least do it and do some things on my own,” Simmons told Capital B at her home.

But, as a retiree on a fixed income, it’s too expensive, she says. She pays $60 a month for fixed wireless internet with AT&T. But some months, if she goes over her data usage, it’s $10 for each additional 50 gigabytes of data. If it increases, she says she’ll cancel the service, despite its convenience.

Back in Alabama, Henry Hall Jr. has switched back and forth between AT&T and Spectrum, formerly Charter, for years. They are two of the largest internet companies worldwide and the only options available to him. He lives in a remote area in the countryside of Selma, surrounded by trees, and his service is always “buffering,” he said. He walks nearly 20 minutes to the Selma library to use the computer and printer. Drye calls him a regular because he’s there so much.

The Selma library and the nonprofits led by Dickerson and Hageman help to provide resources to their communities to access the internet. However, many communities don’t have those resources.

In 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which authorized $65 billion to fix broadband issues, including infrastructure, affordability, and digital literacy. Of that, $42.5 billion goes to states through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program.

Currently, each state is planning how to disperse the funds, but the rollout will happen over the next four years or so. Given the history of neglect to Black communities, residents question whether the billions of dollars from the feds for broadband will reach their area.

While Hall enjoys his library visits, he hopes the federal government’s initiatives will result in better service for residents.

“It’s unfortunate that when you use the internet, it’s buffering, or if there’s too many people trying to get in on it at one time, the internet … it becomes stagnant,” he added. “As long as I get the quality,  I can use the internet when I need to use it, and that’s what I would like.”

The post How Black Rural Americans Navigate Internet Issues appeared first on Capital B News.

To fight teacher shortages, schools turn to custodians, bus drivers and aides 

MORGAN CITY, La. — Jenna Gros jangles as she walks the halls of Wyandotte Elementary School in St Mary’s Parish, Louisiana. The dozens of keys she carries while she sweeps, sprays, shelves and sorts make a loud sound, and when children hear her coming, they call out, “Miss Jenna!” 

Gros is head custodian at Wyandotte, in this small town in southern Louisiana. She’s also a teacher-in-training.  

In August 2020, she signed up for a new program designed to provide people working in school settings the chance to turn their job into an undergraduate degree in education, at a low cost. There’s untapped potential among people who work in schools right now, as classroom aides, lunchroom workers, afterschool staff and more, the thinking goes, and helping them become teachers could ease the shortage that’s dire in some districts around the country, particularly in rural areas like this one. 

Brusly Elementary School has 595 students, ranging from ages two to seven. Principal Lesley Green says teacher retention is one of her top priorities: “Because we know that the best thing for our babies is stability and consistency. And that’s very important at this age level, especially where they thrive off of routines, procedures and familiar faces.” Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

In two and a half years, the teacher training program, run by nonprofit Reach University, has grown from 50 applicants to about 1,000, with most coming from rural areas of Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and California. The “apprenticeship degree” model costs students $75 dollars a month. The rest of the funding comes from Pell Grants and philanthropic donations. The classes, which are online, are taught by award-winning teachers, and districts must agree to have students work in the classroom for 15 hours a week as part of their training.

We have overlooked a talent pool to our detriment,” said Joe Ross, president of Reach University. “These people have heart and they have the grit and they have the intelligence. There’s a piece of paper standing in the way.” 

Efforts to recruit teacher candidates from the local community date back to the 1990s, but programs have “exploded” in number over the past five years, said Danielle Edwards, assistant professor  of educational leadership, policy and workforce development at Old Dominion University in Virginia. Some of these “grow your own” programs, like Reach’s, recruit school employees who don’t have college degrees or degrees in education, while others focus on retired professionals, military veterans, college students, and even K12 students, with some starting as young as middle school.

“‘Grow your own’ has really caught on fire,” said Edwards, in part because of research showing that about 85 percent of teachers teach within 40 miles of where they grew up. But while these programs are increasingly popular, she says it isn’t clear what the teacher outcomes are in terms of effectiveness or retention. 

Related: Teacher shortages are real, but not for the reasons you’ve heard

Nationwide, there are at least 36,500 teacher vacancies, along with approximately 163,000 positions held by underqualified teachers, according to estimates by Tuan Nguyen, anassociate professor of education at Kansas State University. At Wyandotte, Principal Celeste Pipes has three uncertified teachers out of 26. 

“We are pulling people literally off the streets to fill spots in a classroom,” she said. Surrounding parishes in this part of Louisiana, 85 miles west of New Orleans, pay more than the starting salary of $46,000 she can offer; some even cover the full cost of health insurance. 

Data suggests not having qualified teachers can worsen student achievement and increase costs for districts. An unstable workforce also affects the school culture, said Pipes: “Once we have people here that are years and years and years in, we know how things are run.”

Jenna Gros, head custodian at Wyandotte Elementary School in St Mary’s Parish, Louisiana, stops to tie a student’s shoe. She said she makes it a point to develop relationships with students: “We don’t just do garbage, you know?” Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

As Gros walks the hallways, she stops to swat a fly for a scared child, ties a first grader’s shoelaces and asks a third about their math homework. Her colleagues had long noticed her calm, encouraging manner, and so, when a teacher’s aide at Wyandotte heard about Reach, she urged Gros to sign up with her. 

Gros grew up in this town — her father worked as a mechanic in the oil rigs — and always wanted to be a teacher. But with three children and a salary of $22,000 a year, she couldn’t afford to do so. The low cost and logistics of Reach’s program suddenly made it possible: Her district agreed to her spending 15 hours of her work week in the classroom, mentoring or tutoring students. She takes her online classes at night or on weekends.

Like other teacher-candidates at Reach University, Jenna Gros spends 15 hours a week in classrooms. She sometimes observes teachers, and other times helps children in small groups. Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

Current employees are also in the retirement system, meaning the years they’ve already worked count toward their pension. For Gros, who has worked for 18 years in her school system, that was an important consideration, she said. 

Pipes said people like Gros understand the vibe of this rural community — the importance of family, the focus on church, the love of hunting. And people with community roots are also less likely to leave, said Chandler Smith, the superintendent in West Baton Rouge Parish School System, a few hours’ drive away. 

His district is the second-highest paying in the state but still struggles to attract and retain teachers: It saw a 15 percent teacher turnover rate last year. Now, it has 29 teacher candidates through Reach. 

Related: Uncertified teachers filling holes across the South 

In West Baton Rouge Parish, Jackie Noble is walking back into the Brusly Elementary school building at 6:45 p.m. She’d finished her workday as a special education teacher’s aide around 3:30 p.m., then babysat her granddaughter for a few hours, spent time with her husband, and picked up a McDonald’s order of chicken nuggets, a large coffee and a Coke to get her through her evening classes. Some Reach classes go until 11 p.m. 

Noble was a bus driver in this area for five years, but she longed to be a teacher. When she mustered the courage to research options for joining the profession, she learned it would cost somewhere between $5,000 to $15,000 a year over at least four years. “I wasn’t even financially able to pay for my transcript because it was going to cost me almost $100,” she said. 

When Noble heard about Reach and the monthly tuition of $75 a month, she said, “My mouth hit the floor.”

Ross, of Reach University, said he often hears some variation of: “I had to choose between a job and a degree.” 

“What if we eliminate the question?” he said. “Let’s turn jobs into degrees.”

Brusly Elementary is quiet as Noble settles down in a classroom. She moves her food strategically off camera and ensures she has multiple devices logged in: her phone, laptop and desktop. Sometimes the internet here is spotty, and she doesn’t want to take any chances. 

It’s the night of the final class of her course, “Children with Special Needs: History and Practice.” Her 24 classmates smile and wave as they log on from different states. They’ve been taking turns presenting on disabilities such as dyslexia, brain injuries and deafness; Noble gave hers, on assistive technologies for children with physical disabilities, last week. 

Reach began in 2006 as a certification program for entry-level teachers who had a degree but still needed a credential. It then expanded to offer credentials to teachers who wanted to move into administration as well as graduate degrees in teaching and leadership. In 2020, Reach University started the program focused on school employees without a degree.

Kim Eckert, a former Louisiana teacher of the year and Reach’s dean, says she was drawn to the program because, as a high school special education teacher, she saw how little opportunity there was for classroom aides in her school to boost their skills. She started monthly workshops specifically for them.  

Kimberly Eckert, dean of Reach University and the 2018 Louisiana Teacher of the Year, stands outside Brusly Elementary School in West Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana. She says there’s an untapped pool of potential teacher candidates working as secretaries, bus drivers and janitors that society hasn’t traditionally considered as possible educators. “We definitely have blinders on. I think we’re conditioned to think that teachers look and sound and behave a certain way and we need to push ourselves and those limitations as well.” Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

In growing the Reach program, Eckert drew from her teacher-of-the-year class, hiring people who understood the realities of classroom management and could model what it’s like to be a great teacher. She shied away from those who haven’t proven themselves in the classroom, even if they have degrees from top universities. “Everybody thinks they can be a teacher because they’ve had a teacher,” she said, but that’s not true. 

The 15 hours a week of “in-class training,” which can include observing a teacher, tutoring students or helping write lessons, is designed to allow students to test out what they’re learning almost immediately, without having to wait months or years to put their studies into practice. Michelle Cottrell Williams, a Reach administrator and Virginia’s 2018 teacher of the year, recalls discussing an exercise in class about Disney’s portrayal of historical events versus the reality. One of her students, a classroom aide, shared it with the fifth graders she was working with the next day. 

Noble says she’ll carry lessons about managing students from the bus to her classroom. She was responsible for up to 70 students while driving 45 miles an hour — so 20 in a classroom seems doable, she said. 

She can’t wait to have her own classroom where she is responsible for everything. “Being with the students approximately eight hours a day, you make a very, very larger impression on their lives,” she said. 

Related: In one giant classroom, four teachers manage 135 kids — and love it 

In May, Reach graduated its first class of teachers, a group of 13 students from Louisiana who had prior credits. The organization’s first full cohort will walk across the stage in spring 2024. 

There are promising signs. Nationwide, about half of teacher candidates pass their state’s teaching licensure exam; more than 60 percent of the 13 Reach graduates did. All of them had a job waiting for them, not only in their local community, but in the building where they’d been working. 

But Roddy Theobald, deputy director of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research and researcher at the American Institutes for Research, says far more research is needed on “grow your own” programs. “There’s very, very little empirical evidence about the effectiveness of these pathways,” he said. 

One of the challenges is that the programs rarely target the specific needs of schools, he said. Some states have staffing shortages only in specific areas, like special education, STEM or elementary ed. “Sometimes they result in even more teachers with the right credentials to teach courses that the state doesn’t actually need,” he said. 

Reach University has several state Teachers of the Year among its faculty for its ‘grown your own’ program, including from Virginia, Idaho, Delaware and Hawaii. Dean Kim Eckert, herself a 2018 teacher of the year from Louisiana, says she wanted the best educators with the latest information in front of her teacher candidates. “It’s not like a typical university where in four years you’ll have your own class and you’ll be a great teacher. You are in your own class right now,” Eckert says. Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

Edwards, one of the first researchers to study “grow your own” programs, is investigating whether teachers who complete them are effective in the classroom and stay employed in the field long term, as well as how diverse these educators are and whether they actually end up in hard-to-staff schools. 

“States are investing millions of dollars into this strategy, and we don’t know anything about its effectiveness,” she said. “We could be putting all this money into something that may or may not work.” 

Ross, of Reach University, says his group plans to research whether its new teachers are effective and stay in their jobs. In terms of meeting schools’ specific labor needs, Reach has agreements with other organizations such as TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) and the University of West Alabama to help people take higher-level courses in hard-to-fill specialties such as high school math. But while Reach staff look at information on teacher vacancies before partnering with a school district, they don’t focus on matching the district’s exact staffing needs said Ross: “Our hope is the numbers work themselves out.”

Jenna Gros, the head custodian of Wyandotte, makes it a point to know children’s names and speak to them as she works. “It’s about building a bond. You have to be able to bond with them in order to make them feel like they are someone and that they can be someone,” she says. Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

In Louisiana, Ross said he believes the organization could put a serious dent in the teacher vacancy numbers statewide. Some 84 percent of all parishes have signed on for Reach trainees, he said, and 650 teachers-in-training are enrolled. That amounts to more than a quarter of the teacher vacancy numbers statewide, 2,500.

“We’re getting pretty close to being a material contribution to the solution in that state,” he said. 

His group is also looking to partner with states, including Louisiana, to use Department of Labor money for teacher apprenticeships. At least 16 states have such programs. Under a Labor Department rule last year, teacher apprenticeships can now access millions in federal job-training funds. Reach is in talks to use some of that money, which Ross says would allow it to make the programs free to students and rely less on philanthropy.  

A straight-A student since her first semester, head custodian Jenna Gros expects to graduate without any debt in May 2024. She expects to teach at this same elementary school. At that point, her salary will almost double.

She said she loves how a teacher can shape a child’s future for the better. “That’s what a teacher is — a nurturer trying to provide them with the resources that they are going to need for later on in life. 

I think I can be that person,” she said. She pauses. “I know I can.” 

This story about grow your own programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

The post To fight teacher shortages, schools turn to custodians, bus drivers and aides  appeared first on The Hechinger Report.

Oklahomans are asked to mail in dead butterflies, moths in the name of science

Alabama Discriminated Against Black Residents, Feds Confirm

For the first time in U.S. history, the Justice Department has concluded an environmental justice inquiry through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, determining that the state of Alabama and Lowndes County discriminated against Black residents for decades.  The findings from the investigation have led to an agreement involving the Alabama Department of Public Health […]

The post Alabama Discriminated Against Black Residents, Feds Confirm appeared first on Capital B.

A landmark investigation brings environmental justice to rural Alabama

For as long as anyone can remember, the lack of a sanitation system in Lowndes County, Alabama, and resulting reliance on piping human waste directly into septic tanks and local creeks, has made life in the community miserable. After years of organizing and calls to action by the residents of this rural, low-income, and largely Black community, Earthjustice and Alabama grassroots leaders submitted a civil rights complaint, alleging racist neglect by Alabama public health officials. In response, federal authorities launched an investigation. 

The 18-month inquiry found the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Lowndes County Health Department acted with neglect and discrimination toward the county’s residents by not only denying them access to basic sanitation, but imposing fines and even liens against them while ignoring the grave health impacts the situation created.

“Today starts a new chapter for Black residents of Lowndes County, Alabama, who have endured health dangers, indignities, and racial injustice for far too long,” Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said Thursday in a statement announcing the agreement. “Our work in Lowndes County should send a strong message regarding our firm commitment to advancing environmental justice, promoting accountability, and confronting the array of barriers that deny Black communities and communities of color access to clean air, clean water, and equitable infrastructure across our nation.”

Residents of this county in central Alabama have long lived without basic sanitation services and have watched raw sewage from failing septic tanks flow into their yards. Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and a 2017 Grist 50 honoree, brought the issue to public attention in her book Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. It describes shocking scenes of raw sewage on the ground, overflowing toilets, and repeated calls in vain to the city to pump effluent from yards. In a county where almost one in three residents live in poverty, very few could do much about the problem, leaving almost half the county’s homes without access to wastewater infrastructure. A study in 2017 found that rare intestinal parasites persisted in over 30 percent of the Lowndes county residents surveyed, and all of them were Black.

After years of community organizing led by Flowers and others, the federal Justice and Health and Human Services departments launched an investigation in November 2021. They focused on Title IV of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits recipients of federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin in federally funded programs and activities. They also considered the Affordable Care Act, which explicitly prohibits the exclusion of any individual from services provided by a public health program. 

The investigation found that not only did the Alabama Department of Public Health fail to provide basic sanitation to the residents of Lowndes County, but the Lowndes County Health Department actively enforced sanitation laws. It often levied charges on residents who had no control over the sanitary conditions in their community and who often could not afford upgrades. 

According to the agreement, the state health department is working alongside federal agencies to correct the situation. The Department of Justice has ordered the agency to immediately stop prosecuting Lowndes County residents for sanitation law violations and take meaningful steps to assess the county’s wastewater needs, develop a plan to address them, and collaborate with the residents to do so. The state health department must provide people with “critical health and safety information” and work with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess health risks to the population. It must also develop a plan within a year to improve public health in the county. Federal agencies may reopen the investigation if officials feel the agreements are not being followed.

“The work is just getting started,” Flowers said. “We have, over the years, been working to shed light on the problem. Now we’re at the point where we’re working on a solution. I think that [state health officials] will cooperate, because now the nation is watching.”

The federal investigation and resulting agreement mark the first time an environmental justice inquiry has fallen under the Civil Rights Act. Justice Department officials indicated that it would not be the last — something Flowers applauded.

 “There are numerous communities across the United States, especially rural communities, that have these issues,” she said. “So yes, we hope that this will be an example for others to follow. Or people can decide to not wait for the Justice Department to get involved, but to go to work on solutions.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A landmark investigation brings environmental justice to rural Alabama on May 8, 2023.

Salt, Soil, and Supper