SN&R: On Sacramento schools, Common Core and the digital divide

It’s a rare moment at Leataata Floyd Elementary School: 30 sixth graders are completely silent.

The kids look like they’re focused on a test. But maybe they’re just mesmerized by the devices that the exam is on: shiny new MacBook Airs. The Sacramento City Unified School District recently deployed more than 6,000 of these laptops to its schools in preparation for a test that the whole country is talking about.

Michelle Blanton is conducting all the exams at Leataata Floyd, and she circles the room slowly. No one seems to have any problems during this practice round. Time is up, and the students take off their headphones, close their MacBooks and file into a separate room for a class meeting. They sit down cross-legged in a big circle and pass around a microphone—which is actually a plastic pink flower taped to a green pen—so everyone has a chance to speak.

Blanton proposes the question of the day: “What did you think of the test?”

“It was better than taking it on paper,” one student says.

“I like that my hands don’t hurt,” another offers.

They make it sound so simple.

Students are taking the test now, through June 6, but it’s been a long, complicated road to get here. It’s all because of the new education standards called Common Core. State legislators recently sprung the test on districts, and now teachers are scrambling to figure out how it works.

But Common Core also speaks to a broader digital divide. Will the test only increase bias toward rich kids with iPads and Internet access at home? Or will this new emphasis on digital technology in schools level the playing field?

Leataata Floyd principal Billy Aydlett sure hopes so. His school serves some of the city’s poorest kids, and he spends budget money on technology whenever he can. He’s in firm support of Common Core and the computer-based exams.

But Sacramento schools are not created equal. Some of the district’s “priority schools” like Leataata Floyd swim in new tech toys, while others can barely get their hands on computers, let alone tablets and expensive MacBooks.

This divide also remains very real in children’s homes. In pockets of Sacramento, less than 40 percent of households have broadband Internet. That’s a long ways to go to meet the state’s goal of 80 percent by 2015.

“It’s not a genie you can put back in a bottle. Technology is already part of everyday life,” Aydlett argues. “Sheltering folks from it is crazy.”

Apparently, so is teaching it.

Read the full story here in Sacramento News & Review.

This story was a finalist for the 2014 California Newspaper Publishers Association award for best education reporting.