Baton Rouge will be a petri dish for researchers looking to study the effect of Internet access on school performance as the federal government works to deliver speedy, cheap connections to low-income children.
This week, President Barack Obama announced the ConnectHome initiative administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Baton Rouge leaders on Thursday said the effort would help low-income children complete homework assignments and level the playing field for all students.
“Access to high-speed Internet is no longer a luxury. It’s a necessity,” HUD Regional Administrator Tammye Trevino said at a Thursday news conference at Ardenwood Village, an apartment complex operated by the East Baton Rouge Parish Housing Authority.
“How sad is it that when we go home, the learning has to stop? ... This is about education for our young ones,” said Gail Grover, an assistant chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden.
Twenty-seven cities and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma have elected to participate in a pilot phase for ConnectHome. Baton Rouge and New Orleans will both have programs, as will larger cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
Internet providers in those communities will offer broadband service for free or at a reduced cost, though specific plans differ.
On Thursday, Baton Rouge leaders discussed how the program will work in the capital city.
Cox Communications already offers $9.95 monthly Internet subscriptions for families with at least one student who qualifies for the federal free school lunch program. The company will continue to offer the deal under ConnectHome, provided the family does not already have a Cox account and does not owe the company any money, spokeswoman Sharon Bethea explained.
Trevino said 450 families and 1,000 Baton Rouge children would be affected by ConnectHome. Bethea said she isn’t sure how many will be new users because her company already offers reduced-price Internet service, but the new effort may bring more users aboard.
Representatives of the Parish Housing Authority and library system both support the program. Library system Director Spencer Watts said his facilities have lots of online content available and staff is trained to help users with their equipment.
LSU researchers will work with Cox to keep track of families that get a connection and compare their children’s grades before and after getting home Internet access. They also will interview users, including students, to determine what effect the technology has on them, said professor Cecile Guin, of the LSU Office of Social Service Research and Development.
There already is a great deal of literature that shows how important home Internet access is to academic success, the professor added.
“The research is just so clear,” she said.
HUD will review the pilot programs to identify the best way to spread ConnectHome to more communities across the country. In a Wednesday news release, the administration said Obama wants to connect 99 percent of kindergarten through 12th-grade students to high-speed Internet in their classrooms and libraries in the next five years. Through ConnectHome, they hope to make Internet access available after school, as well.
“This is a very exciting day for us,” East Baton Rouge Parish Housing Authority Chairman Christopher Odinet said. “Access to broadband opens doors and opens opportunities in ways that can’t really be described.”