Digital Equity in K-12 Schools with Sunshine Miller of Newfield Central School District


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  • Sean

Hello. You’re listening to the K-12 tech podcast, bringing you insights into the world of education, and technology. Stay tuned as we discuss the past, the present, and most importantly, the future of technology in our schools. Hello and thank you for joining us again for our K-12 tech podcast. My name is Sean. I’m also joined with Mike Hot Seller. And today we have a very special guest with us from Ithaca, New York.

  • Mike

We have Sunshine Miller, who is the director of technology and professional development at Newfield Central School District. And she’s going to be talking us talking with us today about something that’s very important and maybe overlooked sometimes in the tech world of discussions, which is digital equity within schools, specifically. Now, when we rely on technology, so much for student learning.

  • Sean

So Sunshine, thank you again for joining us. I’ll give you kind of the stage to introduce yourself. Let us know how you got to where you are now and then we’ll jump into it.

  • Sunshine

Thank you so much for having me on today. I’m excited about talking to others about digital equity. I’m originally from a very small town in Ohio. I moved to New York in 1996 and have taught much of my career. I’ve been an administrator. This is year eight of administration for me and I actually interesting three. I taught a new field left Newfield for an endowment position and then came back to the field and I was very excited about that. It’s a great school, it’s a wonderful community and I’m really excited to be back with my I call them my family because that’s what we are here. We’re a family in this district and I’m glad to be back in this space working with students and staff and especially working on digital equity. The pandemic really shed some light on some inequities for us in this small rural community. And like I said, I’m from a kind of small town in Ohio. And so it’s rural equity. And digital equity in rural areas is, is a big topic of conversation among rural schools. And we’d like for it to be a big topic of conversation for everyone.

  • Sean

For people that may not be used to hearing about digital equity. What does that mean inside of a school district or, you know, with technology in general? Because obviously, you can talk about equity with homes and things that are tangible to hold on to you. Right. But what does that mean in the technology world?

  • Sunshine

So for technology and especially in the pandemic and post-pandemic age, for us that really meant connectivity. And we’re a small community, rural community. Like I mentioned. And isolation was an issue for our students. The school district is the hub of the community. It’s where a lot of things happen. It’s a small hamlet up right outside of it. I go about seven miles outside of Ithaca. So during the pandemic, we were providing meals to families. We were providing essential services to families. And one of the essential services that we really got hung up with was connectivity. Our school district inside our walls. We have great infrastructure. We had a capital project in 2018 that really prepared us well for the pandemic.

If our students and staff were on campus. But when they weren’t, we found lots of issues with before 2020, before the pandemic, we were not a 1 to 1 district. So students did not have their own devices, even though most of the school districts in our county had already gone 1 to 1 and had been 1 to 1 for quite some time, we were still that cart scenario of a cart of computers, and if the teacher felt like using them or we had these rockstar teachers that use them very regularly, then students had the opportunity to engage digitally. We also had old-school computer labs and some students got to go to computer labs, but not all students. It really depended on the time of year, the lesson the teacher. So there was inequity before the pandemic and the pandemic just really took the tablecloth off the table. In addition to not having a 1 to 1 scenario in our town, in our area, connectivity is very poor.

Most families do not have broadband. We have broadband, which is not it’s not fiber in. And a lot of folks get really confused with, yes, I have Internet. And then when you actually ask really deep questions that the pandemic really kind of brought to the forefront of, is your Internet stable? Can more than one student get on a Google meet at the same time? And if you had a family of five students on a point system of broadband, we were seeing lots of connectivity issues. So from the beginning of the pandemic, when the pandemic started, the school district sent home lots of paper packet. That was the modality for learning. And we saw large gaps like gaping holes of students that would return the work, students that didn’t get the work, students that didn’t do the work, students that didn’t have transportation. To get the paper back to the school district, we were sending busses around collecting, you know, paper artifacts, paper products for learning. And it was not a good place to be. So I started in the fall of 2020, crazy to take job like this at that time. But like I said, I was excited to be back with my family here in Newfield.

And at that time I immediately the first day I was on campus, I realized that we had to find a way to get to 1 to 1 because we had so many families that were not able to connect. And even though that connection, a digital connection, is not the same as being in-person for certain and we all know this, but for our students that had no connection whatsoever. So you’re sitting in the middle of nowhere, basically, in this rural community, some of our students live in very remote areas, even though we’re seven miles from Ithaca and they have no connection to their classroom teacher, they have no connection to the school. They might not have neighbors and they may not have neighbors for miles. And there they are with nothing.

So in September, when I started with the district, we immediately began planning for a 1 to 1 deployment. Lots of issues with that because of the supply and demand chain which just crushed us and we didn’t have devices really to give to students. So we stripped down the computer labs, we sent home desktop computers. We found every iPad we could find. And then as we’re pulling the iPads out of carts, we realized that somebody had shot away all of that, all of the charging points. So now we’re on the hunt for charging black and we can’t find charging blocks anywhere. It was an interesting, few months, but by the middle of October, we had sewn together enough devices to get something in every single student’s hand or home that did come with some interesting, you know, juggling.

We had our superintendent at one point and I were having a conversation and he was new to actually in the fall of 2020. This is a brand new admin team. Every single chair had flipped, so everyone was new in the district, and the superintendent who had come on board in July, we were having the conversation and I said, we’re not going to make it. We’re not going to have enough devices. Even with taking apart the computer labs, even with, you know, scouring every corner of this district, we don’t have enough for every kid. And I asked him and he was willing to ask other superintendents in the county for devices. So he goes to the superintendent’s council meeting and says, can anyone help us? And another rural school poor like us, but rich and rich in other resources, fortunately for us was able to slow this 100 devices. They gave us 100 devices to like fill in the gap. So that part of inequity where a school district like ours sits in this space seven miles from Cornell University, Ithaca College, a really rich tech community, too.

Like we have tech companies and we have an entire business of technology in Ithaca. And here is the school district with no devices and no digital connection. And really no digital skills, digital footprint experiences, both baseline experiences of using a 1 to 1 device in your classroom and sophisticated heated experiences with 3D printing and laser printing and robotics and drones. So the first scenario was getting them a 1 to 1 device that was the absolute first priority. And in tandem with that first priority of getting them a device was getting them some sort of connection in their home. So again, we had we have so many students that don’t have access to the Internet. It’s really it’s jaw-dropping when you look at it.

We had just wrote down a few statistics. So I can say that clearly 23% of our kids, even after the 1 to 1 deployment, were not able to connect the district. 23%. And we’re a school district of about 720 kids at that time were just under 700. Now, 30% of them do not have access to broadband in their home. And the ones that do have broadband, like I said, it’s point broadband or it’s not fiber optic broadband, it’s not an actual strong connection. So many of them had like 19 to 20% had trouble connecting even though they had Internet in their home. And it could be because they had four kids on, you know, on a meet at the same time or different kids were trying to connect in different ways.

You have two kids in the elementary, one in the middle and one in the high, and there were some real issues there. So we wrote lots of grants to mobile was amazing. I can’t say enough about the I think it’s called the 10 Million Project with T-Mobile. That project was initially meant for students to have access to hotspots for after-school work or like homework help at home. Like if you don’t have hotspots, if you don’t have connectivity at home here, this will help you with homework. During the pandemic, T-Mobile really poured so much energy and time into my school district. I can’t say enough good about them. We now have 200 hotspots, 250 hotspots, and three, and 200 of them are in the field. 200 of them are assigned to students. So we wrote grants for hotspots and then we knew pretty quickly that so with the 10 million projects, you have I think 100 gigabytes of data over a year. Let’s use a quick Google meet. It was really, really quick with connecting online. So we wrote more grants for data plans and the Park Foundation of Tompkins County the foundation and Tompkins County gives the grant to cover data plans for all of our families in all of our hotspots. So over a two-year period, we got about 1.2 million in grant funds to get hotspots, to get data plans, to bring 1 to 1 devices to students. After our patchwork of devices, we were able to slow by slow access Chromebooks and get Chromebooks in the district. So we now have a fully a full fleet of Chromebooks, kindergarten through actually pre-K through 12th grade.

We also did not have a learning management system. It was like the perfect storm here. There was Google was not anything that the teachers or the students said they had never been on a Google meet. So in the fall of 2020, all of those caught, we turned all of those corners at one time and really just ran as fast as we could toward getting students devices, getting students connected, and helping families understand that this is a critical service. It’s not a luxury. It’s not you know, some have it, some don’t. And the pandemic really made that a very poignant reminder and a poignant, a poignant fact for our families that they didn’t have it. They didn’t maybe know that they needed it. And then we came to this critical point of everyone needed to be able to connect with the school district. And we wanted to connect with our kids. And getting to that point took a lot of time and energy and lots of help. Like I said, you know, Groton Central School District sending us 100 Chromebooks from their retired fleet, T-Mobile getting us had that the Park Foundation giving us money for data plans and some families were willing to for a while we relax or be wired policy and then by mid-year I’d say January of the first year, we did a full second 1 to 1 deployment of actual Chromebooks that were managed by the district.

So I can’t thank my tech team enough. They worked super hard to ensure that students were getting what they needed. So, you know, baseline, that’s digital equity. Do you have a device? Do you have baseline skills? Can you actually get your hands on a computer and can you connect? But we have a lot of like I mentioned early in what I was saying there, our students weren’t using sophisticated technologies either. So that’s kind of our next leg.

  • Sean

A difference between calling something digital equity and calling it digital equality as far as like maybe are you guys getting provided equal funding as other schools in the area? I mean, or is equity inequality kind of the same thing when you’re talking about, you know, devices and what students have access to?

  • Sunshine

I think that’s a really good question. Equity inequality, they are and they aren’t the same thing. So if the state were to come out and say, we’re going to give every single school district 200 Chromebooks, if you’re a school district that has 700 kids, that isn’t necessarily going to be as equitable as a district that has 2000 kids. Right. Equity inequality really gets to when you talk about equity, you really have to focus on what does the individual student need. And the one thing that’s really interesting about Newfield, even though we are rural school, we’re the second most diverse in the county. So we have the second-highest number of black students in the county.

We have the highest number of Native American students in the county. We have the highest number of multiracial students. We have the highest number of socioeconomic of students from poor socio-economic backgrounds. We have the highest number of students with special education needs. So what you give to one district being equitable or thinking about equality, you might give the same thing to the other district that that other district might need more. And in our case, we do. We we have a higher level of needs given our demographics and our population that certainly and I think this is for many reasons, I think and I think every single school district in the country can say that equity in the quality are an issue you. So it shouldn’t matter where you live. You should have broadband regardless of where you live. You should have access to a device at school, regardless of where you live. You shouldn’t have to go to, you know, Ithaca City School District in order to have a device and be connected with your community, you shouldn’t have to be from a wealthy area. You shouldn’t, you know, the other things that kind of plague our community. We’re a food desert where we’re an I call us a digital desert.

We do not have access to the same things that others actually have some of the worst Internet in the county. So equity inequality, it’s a very nuanced and really deep conversation. And I think some people like to just say, okay, here it is, here’s this equitable distribution of things. But if you’re not asking those deep questions about who and what and why and how and how does this community compare to another community close by? You’re really not getting at the heart of the issue. And there’s a great article from the Brookings Institute called The Geography of Prosperity. And this is not just a new problem. This happens. I actually when I came back to Newfield, I was looking at other school districts like ours, and there are two school districts in the Adirondack community and they are six miles apart. And one community is this thriving, artistic, you know, they have everything, everything you could ever ask for six miles away, nothing. The students have literally they’re literally this other microcosm, just like Newfield, outside of a booming town, a booming, booming industry, and a booming place. So this isn’t it’s not necessarily just us. It’s all over the country. And it’s not anything that, you know, a lot of people talk about Newfield and think about generational poverty, generational poverty is a word that a lot of people use to talk about equality and equity.

And, oh, it’s just because their parents didn’t go to school or their parents didn’t go to college or things like that. It is on the school district. It is on the school community, too. To help turn that ship in generational poverty is not I don’t believe in that. I think that certain economic trends and certain economic practices and policies keep us where we are. And the only way to get out of that is to talk about it, to reach out for help, to write grants to you know, we probably could have gone on like we were in the fall of 2020 with paper and pencil and, you know, maybe gotten some computers out to the high school and not the middle school and the elementary school. I don’t regret any of those decisions. And even though they were upsetting for me and my team and, you know, the leadership team here to really it was all of us, all of us in the weeds together, all of us in the facts altogether, really trying to get to the best place we could. I don’t regret any of it, but I regret we had to do it.

It’s really sad that we were in this situation and we were in this position when every other school in the county was 1 to 1. Every other school in the county, you know, I think our neighboring one of our neighboring school districts has four hotspots in the field. We have 200 hotspots in the field. So, you know, it’s an interesting issue that I don’t think would have come to the surface as quickly or with as much force had we not had the pandemic. So I like to think about silver linings of the pandemic, and I think that’s one of them, is that we have made great strides. We’ve moved forward quite a bit in terms of stabilizing and moving to 1 to 1 and getting a learning management system and onboarding lots of software. But we have a lot of work to do. Still like the sophisticated use. And we were talking about four pillars here, a new field and then one misrepresentation for sure, like how can a student that goes to Newfield that is a student of color or one of our Native American students or one of our students from a poor home or a student with special education considerations? How are they going to compete in the job market in the digital world when they don’t have any access to sophisticated uses of technology?

So those are, you know, representation. I would love to see more women in roles like mine. I would love to see more women, especially women of color and from marginalized populations in coding, in tech. But if you go to a school where those things don’t exist, you are really so much further behind the students that go to schools that have those kinds of things in place and are really looking at both robust and sophisticated uses of technology.

  • Sean

One of the questions that I had and this might stray a little bit from our topic, but it’s something we’ve talked with multiple tech directors about and that’s cybersecurity. So giving out these hotspots, these devices, all this stuff that, like you said, you didn’t have until the pandemic, were there are certain steps you had to consider when giving those out to keep your data safe because we’ve heard multiple stories of one of the students twice goes home. It’s on their home, Wi-Fi that can open it up to, you know, the mass like, you know, World Wide Web and getting, you know, potential hacker scams, phishing attempts, things like that. Are there certain steps you had to do? As none of that was really, I guess, a factor before for your school district.

  • Sunshine

Yes. And that’s another part of turning that curve that really was painful and exhausting. So in New York State, we have something called a law today it protects student privacy. We also have you know, we have to comply with similar regulations that other school districts things have to be filtered and monitored. We have to do regular audits. And because students didn’t have devices at home, it wasn’t you know, Ed law to me was definitely a thing that we had to work really hard at. And we’re still working hard at it. But because the computers weren’t going home, there wasn’t the I don’t think there was the fever around the guardrails that needed to be up.

We’ve been really conscientious, actually. I think we’re probably still probably tell you to where we’re probably on the heavy side of conscientious and really thinking about duty. We don’t allow we ask I should say we don’t allow we ask that our teachers don’t use any kind of software that asks students to sign in. That is a law the we do require that any kind of program that they’re going to have a student signing into requires a contract that we have to have on file and we have to file these contracts every single year. So before I started, I’d like to this was not any part of the language here. No. One, most people had not heard of it. There was no education about it. There wasn’t education for kids or families. It was hard it was a tough corner to turn. But we’ve done a lot of educating. We’ve talked a lot about it. We’ve done lots of training. We do have contracts on file for all the software we use. We actually run regular audits to make sure that students aren’t logging into programs that they shouldn’t be. I think in August there was some sort of an I don’t know where I actually read this because I read quite a bit. But 80% of the cybersecurity attacks in August were on school districts.

So we have a big target on our back. We know we have a big target on our back. So we work really we’re really diligent. Another thing we onboarded almost immediately, actually within about six months was encryption services. We had no encryption before the pandemic. We’ve onboarded encryption. We are now rolling out two-factor authentication. We have yubikey that every teacher will have to authenticate with each time they log into their Google account. We have two-factor authentication for students coming in January. We’re going to do that through class. Language is our software management portal. So we are really aware of the fact that giving handing over to a device without the proper guardrails and controls and maintenance of that device is really irresponsible. And we’ve tried to be very proactive in terms of helping students understand their rights, helping teachers understand the rights of the student, helping parents understand that they have rights and how their students data is shared and why their student data is shared.

We actually here’s you know, here’s a silly success theory, but a success story for sure. This fall, someone had asked the student to log into a program to do some flashcards or something, and the student said no. And so the person came to me and said, the student is refusing to do this. And I actually was able to say, that’s good. Like the student should not be logging into that. And the student actually said, I don’t want to give away my private trick like this. This is my PII, this is my personally identifiable information. And I’m like, This is amazing. This is excellent. The bad thing about the pandemic and teachers being online is that every company really in the world was giving free trials and try this and do this and do that. And blood. Pandora’s Box raid. Sign your kid up for this picture. Hit on to that. Send your kid this way. Send your kid that way. And I think a lot of data was exchanged. There was a lot of handshake data going on and people were not aware of the fact that that I don’t know that all companies were nefarious in their actions, but I think many were like when we get right down to it, companies were offering this thing for free to get you on the hook, and then you either had to pay this crazy price to continue to use this thing or you had to like live without it.

And one of the things I tell kids often and I tell parents and I tell our teachers, if you are not paying for the product, you are the product. And it’s so important to remember that if you’re not paying for the thing they are in some way, they are making a profit off of you. And generally, it’s because they’re taking your data and they’re using it themselves or they’re selling it to other companies. And the amount of identity theft that is occurring for students that aren’t regularly checking their identities, you know, they have the hybrid identity theft where they take a student’s name and some another student’s address and another student’s Social Security number. And they create new identities. I think the pandemic and I think we haven’t even really scratched the surface of that yet. I think where we’re going to live really hard for a while, I actually ask all of our parents to check their students credit scores like, you really should get a credit score service. You should be looking at it regularly. You should lock their credit or freeze their credit for your students if you can. Even though they’re young and it may seem silly, I think that we are going to see a lot of data has been exchanged because teachers weren’t aware, some companies were nefarious, and unfortunately, that educational piece of every time you sign up for something you’re exchanging your personally identifiable information every single time.

And kids don’t understand that. I think our kids are better at understanding it, which is really good, and I think our teachers are better at understanding it. But, you know, for cybersecurity reasons and protection of data, that is. And, you know, that’s another that when you get right down to it, that is an equity issue. Why should a student from my little school district not have the same accountability for their teacher or their administrators or a tech company for their private information, for their personally identifiable information, because it’s a poorer school, because it’s a small school, because we don’t have devices. I don’t believe that should be the case at all for any student in the United States. Like looking at protecting that data is so important in the cyber security piece of helping students understand that the World Wide Web, you know, is I always say we have to learn to use our powers for good and not everyone out there is using their powers for good in understanding that we do a lot of phishing here in terms of cybersecurity.

We say regularly, we watch the trends, we push out training exercises for staff, and helping students and staff both understand that. You know, I was just saying the other day, I want to start making posters like you only have so many clicks, you have no clicks left or stop clicking that I think the pandemic and that flood of technology that came into our lives because it had to because that was how we were connecting and everything was a click away. Oh, just click here to sign up for this. You know, two steps and three easy steps have really trained us in many ways to just go in and start clicking things instead of being really thoughtful about, Wait for a second, I do that. What’s going to happen on the other side? And if I do that, what are they getting from me? When I talk to students about geolocation, they are completely freaked out. But it’s good to have the conversation. And I think that’s really a big part of equitable practices for every school district. The protection of data they’re looking at and really investing in cybersecurity. We’ve done quite a bit within this framework in looking at building policies and practices and guidelines for our folks, because it really was if you had come to Newfield in the, you know, when the pandemic broke out, it was like stepping into the 1950s.

It was really interesting. And like I said, I had worked here previously and I left for a bit and when I came back it was exactly the same, which is good in a lot of ways. I mean, it’s a beautiful thing in a lot of ways because it is a really tight community and everybody takes care of each other. But balancing that lightning speed of moving forward and getting us to a place where we are at least competing with other districts and giving our students digital skills, but also at the same time preparing them for what that means and explaining cybersecurity implications and explaining data protection. It was a lot of work and we’re still working on it. We still you know, we still have work to do.

  • Sean

So it seems like a big part of all two main parts then of digital equity specifically would be the knowledge of how to use them and bridge that gap where your district may be falling short or not given the same opportunities. The district is next to you. Even the second part being actually getting the technology into the students hands, whether that’s a hot spot so they can do something from home or the device itself. And then I guess the third part for me then is getting those devices in the first place. Right. And then since you guys weren’t 1 to 1, you mentioned many grants that you’ve gone through to be able to make the 1 to 1 transition for your school. A lot of schools across the country have issues with funding. So were these grants something that were easy to find for you?

Was it days upon days of filling out paperwork to apply for these grants? I mean, what what sort of was that process like once you were able to locate a grant that helped meet the needs that you found in your school, how exactly did that process go of actually obtaining that grant moving forward to bridge that equity gap?

  • Sunshine

Yeah, grant writing is not easy and it’s not for the faint of heart for sure. Luckily I had had some experience in grant writing in previous positions and from when I was a teacher and some of the grants, you know, it really depends. There are some grants that are easy and there are some grants that are incredibly difficult. And with every grant that you write, you have to think about what are the implications of the grant? Who’s going to do the work, who’s going to do the reporting? What are the evaluation measures? You know, what are what is going what am I going to need to do to fulfill my part of the grant in this? This is definitely an equity issue as well. You know, this small school district with five administrators, six administrators and teachers, and students that are frankly exhausted from all of the effects of the pandemic and all of the things that have happened because of the pandemic, writing a grant is a lot of time and energy and effort. And if you’re a school district that can afford a grant writer or you can afford a grant writing service or somebody is out there actively seeking and applying for grants for you, it’s much different than, you know, this mom and pop operation we have here. Hey, I call this Grant. What do you think? Yeah, let’s try it. So, you know, some of the grants were federal grants and those federal grants can be tough to write for sure.

The intricacies of the Web portals and getting the credentials and entering everything correctly. And then the follow through and the follow-up and some of the things we’ve encountered with some of our grants is that because we’re so in addition to all of the other things I said about being, you know, we’re the poorest school district. We have the most students with special education needs for the second most diverse in the county. We also were on the list from the auditor’s office of New York State as in need of are under great fiscal stress. So we don’t have funds to pull somebody you know, to write a grant for a day. You do it at night, you do it on the weekends. We don’t have the funds to have somebody actually monitor and evaluate grant. It’s just not part of our makeup. So it is kind of a scrappy team of all of us pitching in and doing what we can do. The federal grants. We also had to because of our fiscal situation, some school districts, when they would apply for the federal grant, they could just pay for the things they wanted.

And then the feds would reimburse them. Well, that was in our that wasn’t our scenario. So all of the vendors we worked with had to fill out paperwork saying that they would build the federal government directly. Well, good luck finding companies that will do that, because some will and some won’t. So you’re kind of at the mercy of the system. Are we got a grant for $300,000 from the New York from New York State? It was a learning technology grant, which I think that grant was 80 some pages. So lots of work went into it. It has a lot of reporting requirements. You have to file things called FS, ten, ten A’s if you have any amendments. In the final 15, there are lots of checks and balances to make sure the money is spent in the way that was intended. And that’s all work of people that are in the district that are doing it because we believe kids deserve everything we can give them. So yeah, grant grants are another great example of equity issues. If you’re a big district and you have, you know, lots of administrators so you have the ability to pay for a grant, right? Or a grant writing service. You’re going to get a lot of grants if you’re the poorer school and suffering from the geography of, prosperity or lack of prosperity, you kind of have to find your own way in and you have to really think about, you know, everyone that works in this district, works here because they want to it’s definitely not because they have to.

All the things, all the cards we have stacked against us, I can’t say enough good about our teachers. They choose to work here and they choose to work with the students we have. Our core students are it’s like, you know, Statue of Liberty. Send us your huddled masses and we’ll take care of them. And we do our best at trying to do that. But it’s not easy. And it’s not easy for a lot of reasons that are completely out of our control. So, you know, writing grants is another it’s part of my job and unofficial part of my job that I do and that lots of people, like jump in. Like I said, a lot of us working on these grants together to try to get the things we need for our kids in absence of having that naturally or, you know, equitably from the state and federal government with grants.

  • Sean

I guess the largest hurdle sounds like then is clearly it’s very time-consuming to write out these grants and apply for them. So is it a timing issue in having free time as a staff member to go ahead and apply for that or I mean, is finding them all that time-consuming and being able to at least keeping getting that part started? Is that the hard part? I mean, I have never written a grant, so I’m not sure really.

  • Sunshine

It’s every aspect finding the time to find the grant, finding the time to write the grant, finding the time to evaluate the grant, finding the time to, you know, file the appropriate paperwork is all it is time. Abby, it’s time laden. And we actually I’m trying to think if we lost two administrators or one and here I think we lost two full administrators at the beginning of the pandemic. So we really are like the lean mean. There are six admins on the team. It’s, it’s tight, it’s tight. But like the Park Foundation, we’re very lucky and hopefully they don’t mind me including them on this that just because they’re also very humble in like just such an amazing organization writing a grant for the Park Foundation certainly isn’t the same as writing a grant for New York State or federal grant.

So some of them are easier to write than others, but they all have like this requirement to follow up and in. And that’s the other thing too. When we write a grant, I think we’re really conscientious about we’re writing the grant for a reason and we want that reason to be fruitful. We don’t want to just write the grant to get the money. We write the grant to get the money to do the same too, have a result. So for us, we’re really dedicated and we have our eye on the prize.

  • Sean

Obviously, as any administrator or teacher or anyone that works with schools knows the work is never done. And just because you’ve solved one problem this time doesn’t mean another one is not going to pop up tomorrow. So what do you see moving forward with even this school year or, you know, the next few years for Newfield Central? What do you see in your future in the school’s future? As far as you know, is that gap getting smaller? Are you going to continue to grow your digital environment at the school? What is what’s next?

  • Sunshine

Well, that’s a loaded question. And I’ll say, you know, that it comes out of necessities and gaps, but it also comes out of love. We just really love our kids and we want them to have the best shot at a future. Right. We want them to have everything we can give them. That being said, I really think we are we are not even seeing the effects of the pandemic. And we are going to continue to see large gaps and holes in social-emotional learning, the ability to socialize and interact, the ability for our kids to be together in a space. We saw it last year. We’re seeing it, even more, this year. And sometimes I think, oh, those are holes we can fill. Those are buckets we can fill back up.

And some days I’m like, Yeah, no, we just have crucial, crucial elements and components of our humanity missing. I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge. And I think whereas tech, you know, are moving at the speed of light to get a device to every kid and work with them to get them up and running. You know, the impact of that is they spent a year and a half. And, I mean, we just had to close the day after Thanksgiving break because we didn’t have enough staff due to illness. The impact of having a device has really changed them socially and I can’t tell you how many times they have to walk through the cafeteria and close their Chromebook lids like you’re sitting here together, you’re together. You should be talking, you should be discussing things, you should be having social time where I go out to recess or why is your Chromebook outside?

Number one, it’s not good for the Chromebook. And number two, it’s not good for you, you know, helping really navigate the digital world use technology for their educational games like leverage it for your educational gain and then put it away at the end of the night. You know, if you’re going to play a game on like is it an educational game? Are you what are you getting from it? And really helping kids come back together in a community of, you know, being together and being able to be together in the same room, in the same space is important. We’re missing some critical social skills. They’re critical social skills, especially with ours it seems like middle school is the hotbed for that right now.

And we’re also you know, we’re seeing some gaps in terms of there’s there’s so much we have to address. But the ability to be with each other and the ability to really discern what I should be doing online and what I shouldn’t be doing online is it’s that’s going to be the hard work and the hard work of bringing our kids back, having them have the ability to be together, having that social interaction and the ability to talk to each other and really thinking about another thing we’re really trying to do is put student voice at the heart of the like, helping them become problem solvers and really big thinkers about technology where you’re not just consuming technology, you’re creating with technology. So what is the problem you’re seeing in actually the E2 is one of the initiatives we’re working on for our New York State grant with digital equity and excellence and helping students really think about this digital equity problem, leveraging their voices for this problem, helping them be able to speak it and say to anyone that will listen, why is it that I don’t have Internet but my you know, my cousin in Ithaca does.

Why do I have Internet at my mom’s house, but not my dad’s? Tom, in helping them become creators of solutions to problems, instead of just really sitting in the consumption bucket of I’m going to consume, consume, consume, we’ve become pretty heavy, heavy consumers throughout the pandemic, and we’d really like to see some of them move toward creating creators and thinking about problems that tech bring into their lives and trying to mitigate some of those problems with the help of adults and without the help of adults, the pandemic has had some harsh consequences. And I think we are going to continue to see the effects and the fallout from that for some time, I would say 5 to 7 years.

  • Sean

I mean, even just even with having cell phones in your pockets and being able to text versus talking to them on the phone, not even face to face, just having a verbal conversation has changed a lot of the interactions. And I taught high school for four years, a few years back, and just seeing the students, they they were in the same room texting each other like they’re the social skills kind of start falling away and then, you know, you add into the pandemic part of it. Now they can’t see each other, so they’ve adapted to this other way of communicating and others at lunch on their computers because they don’t know how to communicate anymore. And it really is quite a domino effect. And I think you’re right. We are going to see many, many years of that effect coming from all of this. And it’s going to be difficult to correct.

  • Sunshine

It is. And, you know, I think we are seeing, you know, when we do audits, when we do our regular audits and we’re seeing things in filters and in looking at traffic and just hearing some of the feedback from teachers and families and parents, we have an addiction problem now. I don’t know that I think addiction existed for some subset of the population before the pandemic. Now, I think addiction is for a lot more people. It’s a problem, especially for our young people who perhaps were at home learning online for a year during the pandemic or maybe six months or maybe smaller swatches of time. But during that time they could be on their phone while they were on their computer in class, but not actually in class. You know, playing a game on the sly or on their cell phone, texting back and forth. And I think I think we really need to start focusing some time and energy on addiction again, social-emotional learning and social-emotional awareness, the ill effects of tech, not just I mean, it’s great to be able to connect with your community, but if you’re connecting with your friends and your teacher at the same time, like you said here in the same room and you’re using a device to text your friend versus walking to the back of the room and talking to your friend.

We have some real addiction problems that I think, you know, and I think addiction is oftentimes kind of partitioned into a gaming addiction or VR addiction. This is like serious social addiction to doing a thing that is standing in between an actual human interaction. This is a social addiction. I’m going to text my friend instead of calling them or you know, I was just talking my daughter is a senior in high school, is getting her driver’s license and a lot of her friends aren’t getting their driver’s licenses. And we’re talking about it at dinner one night. And because they don’t need a driver’s license when I was a kid and maybe I’m dating myself, maybe I’m aging myself, you needed wheels and you wanted wheels as fast as you could get them, either a bicycle or a car to get to your friends, to have social time, to, you know, play outside.

And I know I sound like an old fogy now. Our kids sit on gaming like, you know, gaming devices when their next-door neighbors, like, go to his house and play a board game or go outside or so I think we have that is going to be a massive, massive undertaking. And when I see things like the metaverse and all of these developments that are supposed to be amazing for humanity. And I don’t see the guardrail for addiction. I don’t see the parameters around how are you going to help a 13-year-old that can’t get out of the metaverse or, you know, would rather spend time in the metaverse versus the actual universe and some real concerns about where our kids are at. Again, I think they’re missing critical pieces of social development. I think we can fill it. And I think for some of it that we can’t. So we’re going to need to restrategize.

  • Sean

I hate to agree with you, but I agree with you 100%. Now, I know before we started recording, we were kind of discussing some things that are going on in your world, specifically, maybe not just even within the school, but that can reach out to other districts or tech directors or whoever that tuning in. So I want to give you a time I know it’s not necessarily ready to be pushed out and all of that yet, but it sounds like a pretty cool project. Just want to give you some time to be able to plug that and then kind of explain what you guys are working on.

  • Sunshine

Right. That’s really good. I think it will help us get some traction. So part of our New York state learning Technology grant is a project called the E-2. Actually, that’s the name of our grant, Digital Equity, and Excellence. And our first goal of the grant in our first major project, part of the grant is to help center student voice on lack of connectivity or broadband access, access to broadband. And so we’ve worked with a studio lab class at Cornell University this last semester, and they created a website, a D2 website that students can use, not just our students, but any students from anywhere in the country can actually go in and write letters to their legislative representatives, and it will actually help you find who those people are.

There are some poster templates you can get in there and download. There are three different ways to enter the website so you can enter as a student, you can enter as a parent, or you can enter as a community member. And then there are things that are focused specifically to you. The Cornell students were amazing. They came to our school district and did tabletops with our kids, and we actually did tabletops at the New York State Fair this year, talking about digital equity, talking about access to the Internet, talked about the Affordable Connectivity Program through the federal government. Lots of information about that there. And Erin, Emily, Lily, and Emma, are the four girls that I worked with in the design school. It was a design class at Cornell, put together a great website that has lots of resources for us but also resources for anyone that is looking for information about digital equity. They interviewed students. So there are some student, you know, anecdotes about what it was like to live through the pandemic without the Internet. And there is the ability a student can actually send in what their experience was like and it can be posted on the website. So that’s one of the projects we’re working on and our students in the spring and then into the next school year will offer or host community awareness events where we may invite folks from the community into the school district, or we might go to the public library or the fire hall or the town hall and invite folks to come in and talk about, do you have a strong connection?

Can you afford your bill? Affordability is another you know, this is a small, rural, poor community. Talk about the affordability programs that are coming from the feds that they can tap. That was $50 a year ago and now it’s only $30, which is a little it’s kind of sad, but $30 off your bill is still better than nothing. Working with Internet service providers, having students reach out to them and say, you know, throughout the fall of my first year and into the spring of my first year, we worked really hard with Internet service providers to see what we could do and how we could get access here. And I’m not going to mention any names, but a lot of Internet service providers would rather pay the fine for not bringing broadband because it’s less than what they would have to pay to get the actual broadband fiber laid, the cable lead. So it’s a big problem. It’s not just a problem for us. It’s a problem in lots of pockets. I think the FCC, you know, very well-intentioned are you know, the FCC is talking about wanting to make, you know, maps of connectivity. So another thing that we’re asking our kids to do is to tweet us. And then I’m asking students to do speed tests. We’ll do this in the spring. It’s going to be a project. I want you to tweet us from your home. I want to just we talked to my grandmother. I want you to do a speed test while your sister’s on Google meet. I want you to do a speed test while four members of your family are trying to, you know, telecommute.

I want you to like doing speed tests that aren’t just, okay, here’s the speed test that the Internet service provider says you’re getting this money up in, this money down for planning and this our embassies. I actually want to have data and be able to show data that says, okay, so you’re saying we have this, but in actuality, this is what it looks like and we need our kids to do that, right? Our kids are putting the voice and putting the power in students hands is the way we’re going to move forward. I think that you know, we can talk until we’re blue in the face. And some of us here and youth have. But to really get some attention and get people to understand that this is a social service. And I was talking with one of our local legislators who’s, you know, a wonderful man. Great. And he was talking about, you know, it’s like phone service. It’s so crucial. And important. And then like, no, it’s not like the phone. It’s like running water. It’s like heat, it’s like electricity. It’s much more crucial than a phone. A phone for a long time was considered a luxury. This is not a luxury. This is a crucial social service, especially during times like what we’re living in right now. And, you know, we would love to say the pandemic is over. I think I think we like the feeling that this year we’re not on much of a treadmill. But again, the first day after Thanksgiving break, unfortunately, we had to close the school built in the middle school and high school because we didn’t have enough staff because of illness.

And I think we’re probably going to run into situations in the future where we’re going to need the connectivity and quite frankly, our kids deserve it. There’s no reason for our kids not to have it, especially when other students are injured, too. So that’s another thing on the website that’s interesting, and it’s one of the things that was really kind of cool when we started the Project and students started interviewing each other here on campus, there were students that were totally unaware that some of their classmates did not have the ability to access the Internet from their home. And they didn’t realize that you know, what they do to turn in an assignment is a couple of clicks, but for another student, it might take 45 minutes to upload. So it’s interesting I think it will be interesting at the end of the day if our students can get some traction. I think they can. I believe they will. In this Web site that was created by the four amazing, brilliant young women at Cornell. And there’s some representation in tech. I was really excited about that. I think it will help lots of students here and I think it can help other students around the country, too. So I don’t have that information. I don’t have the website yet, but I can just send it to you when it’s ready.

  • Sean

Sunshine, I want to thank you again. We are out of time for today. I’m sure we could continue talking about this topic for quite some time. And sure, you can come up with a thousand ideas, but it does take time to bridge those gaps. And for everyone out there listening, if you could please like and subscribe our podcast. If you would like to be a guest on the next podcast or request a topic for us to talk about, please visit our website at And that’s K-12, the numbers one and two, and reach out to us today once again. Thank you for listening once again, sunshine. Thank you so much for joining us and I hope we get to talk to you again soon.

Show transcript