Mia Carcamo, a seventh-grader at Houston ISD’s Deady Middle School, has only one option when she needs to access the internet at home: the laptop her school provided.
Mia’s family cannot afford home Wi-Fi, her mother Sofia Ochoa said. Thankfully, the school computer is equipped with built-in internet, which means Mia can complete assignments after school, communicate with teachers and show her grades to her parents.
The internet plan on the laptop, however, is set to expire Friday, casting her access to the digital world into jeopardy.
Internet service for Mia and tens of thousands other HISD students is scheduled to be shut off by this weekend after the district backed out of a Verizon program providing free internet connectivity.
And some parents have no idea their kids are set to lose their digital lifelines.
On Wednesday, Ochoa said she had received no information about the cancellation of Mia’s internet service and now worries how her daughter will complete assignments.
“It’s a last-minute thing, and my daughter does need that resource,” Ochoa said. “It has to be available for her education, for her homework, for all these assignments that she has to be doing online.”
HISD’s decision to cancel its partnership with Verizon, first reported by the Houston Landing in late October, left many in the community scratching their heads and asking why the district would turn down free devices and internet plans.
Now, the answer is coming into focus thanks to new statements from HISD and hundreds of pages of email messages, contracts and written agreements obtained by the Landing through public records requests.
The new information shows that while the Verizon devices and data plans were provided at no monetary cost, the partnership required educators to participate in trainings that new Superintendent Mike Miles found unpalatable.
“The free technology comes with strings,” Miles said during a Nov. 9 press conference. “It’s a lot of professional development that’s required, and we’re not going to have anybody from the outside professionally develop our teachers on the quality of instruction, instructional strategies or techniques.”
Educators’ training obligations appear to have ranged from roughly three sessions per year to upward of a dozen, according to written agreements and teacher interviews.
Verizon spokesperson Jeannine Braggs confirmed that “unless the district agrees to continue with the program,” students’ internet will turn off Friday. Schools will be able to keep the devices, but will lose out on the built-in internet plans.
HISD spokesperson Joseph Sam said HISD’s decision to end the partnership was final.
In a written statement, Sam said HISD is looking into alternative ways to ensure all families can access the internet, but did not identify specific resources to replace families’ Verizon access.
“Relative to the total number of families in HISD, there aren’t very many who need help with home internet access. We feel confident we’ll be able to support these families,” Sam said. “We are actively working to mitigate any potential disruptions with alternate broadband providers to provide hotspots to students who need them.”
A needed resource
No definitive count reveals the exact number of HISD families that lack stable web access. However, an estimated 180,000 out of 1.5 million households in Harris County do not have high-speed internet, due to financial barriers or because the infrastructure is lacking, according to the Harris County Office of Broadband.
Several teachers at schools that have been participating in the Verizon program told the Landing that a significant share of their students rely on the computers’ built-in internet to access the web. One teacher said the majority of families served by her school, on the north side of the city, have no Wi-Fi.
Edison Middle School noted in a 2021 application to expand the Verizon program at its school that, before the partnership, only a third of its students had access to technology and home internet. Participation in the program had raised that number to 100 percent, Edison staff said.
“Wi-Fi is a luxury right now,” Ochoa said. “It’s not just us. … It’s really hard to meet ends right now, especially with the grocery stores, you know, prices have gone up. You can barely afford the necessities.”
Part of a national philanthropic effort, Verizon has provided roughly 56,500 students and 2,500 teachers in HISD with iPads or laptops equipped with up to four-year data plans, primarily at schools serving high numbers of low-income families. All 36 participating campuses received a coach to train staff on integrating the new technology into lessons and half also added technology labs with tools such as virtual reality equipment or 3D printing stations, according to Verizon.
Internal district emails suggest HISD initially intended to continue the Verizon program at 13 schools not participating in Miles’ overhaul plans this year, but later backtracked. Adrian Acosta, executive director of curriculum access for HISD, sent a Sept. 25 message saying so-called “non-New Education System” schools would remain part of the program for the entire 2023-24 school year.
Sam, of HISD, said the change of direction was because the district gained a “clearer understanding” of the requirements of the program.
“We had numerous conversations with the (Verizon) team to see if they were open to adapting the program to our needs but could not come to a mutually acceptable solution,” Sam said.
On Verizon’s part, an Aug. 25 message sent from program leader D’Andre Weaver to district staff suggests HISD may have requested exemptions to the program requirements that Verizon was unwilling to grant.
“Our program has successfully been implemented in districts nationwide, including Houston ISD,” Weaver wrote. “Unilaterally (and selectively) modifying the responsibilities of the district and participating schools would compromise the quality of our program.”
Scramble for options
With the abrupt cancellation of students’ internet plans, teachers and school leaders at campuses that were part of the Verizon program have been left searching for alternatives.
Just hours after the initial email alerting school leaders of the end of students’ data plans, Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School Principal Auden Sarabia sent an email asking a Verizon representative whether his campus could independently purchase a continuation package. The representative told Sarabia to take the matter up with HISD’s technology department.
“I worry about my kids who do not have internet access at home and depended on the (built-in internet) access to study and complete assignments,” Sarabia wrote in the Oct. 24 message.
Tonya Sampson teaches World History at Meyerland. She often uses an approach known as a “flipped classroom” in which students watch a brief video lecture at home and then put the concept to use in the next day’s lesson, she said. The model means students need to use their provided laptops nearly every night for homework.
“My entire methodology of teaching will change if my students do not have access to internet at home,” Sampson said. “My approach to teaching is fostering independent learning, letting them know that they can learn things on their own.”
A teacher at another Verizon campus who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution said she will be sending information home with students about alternative internet programs in an attempt to replace families’ Verizon access. She said she fears a significant share of families will not participate.
“For the community I teach, not all students have parents who are citizens, so they’re not all going to feel comfortable calling and asking for access to those programs,” the teacher said. “That’s a big barrier.”
Melissa Yarborough, who teaches English at another Verizon campus, Navarro Middle School, attributed the loss of the Verizon program to the new styles of teaching introduced this year in HISD. Yarborough said she believes the Verizon methods were objectionable to HISD’s new leadership because they put an emphasis on student-led learning rather than direct instruction.
“The way we’ve been ordered to teach is a very specific style. It’s the Mike Miles style where you present the slides that are given and nothing else. You stop and you do a very specific kind of question,” Yarborough said. “This is very much not the Verizon blended learning, technology integration (approach). It’s antithetical.”
Several teachers reported the Verizon computers’ built-in internet has come in handy not just at families’ homes, but also at school. Though campuses are supposed to have steady Wi-Fi access, educators at three separate schools said the internet periodically goes out in the middle of their lessons. In those instances, students switch on their computers’ data plans to avoid disruption.
HISD said its schools’ Wi-Fi connections are stable, and that the district is continuing to invest in internet upgrades across its campuses.
In the meantime, before new programs for home internet reach HISD households, those without Wi-Fi access will be left to fend for themselves. Starting this weekend, Ochoa said her family and others she knows will be forced to go searching for a signal.
“The kids, they would have to be looking for (internet connection) either in a restaurant, in a building, a drive-through or something, just for them to be doing their homework.”
Asher Lehrer-Small covers education for the Landing and would love to hear your tips, questions and story ideas about Houston ISD. Reach him at email@example.com.