$23M partnership gives 51K Detroit students laptops

Angela Demas

What started as a proposal drafted by the Rev. Wendell Anthony about 30 days ago, has resulted in a major announcement on Thursday to provide 51,000 Detroit students with a tablet-style laptop computer to assist with online learning amid the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

“The disease may have taken our bodies, but it can never take the spirit out of Detroit,” Anthony said.

Wendell Anthony

All Michigan K-12 school buildings have been shut down for the 2019-20 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. School districts are responsible for coming up with alternative learning plans for the remainder of the year, as in-person learning has been suspended. 

But districts like Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) are at a disadvantage because many students do not have computers and internet at home.

As a parent of a school-age child, Anthony, Detroit Branch NAACP president and Fellowship Chapel pastor, has worried that the thousands of Detroit students do not have the access to the internet that his daughter has. So he contacted Jerry Norcia, DTE Energy president and CEO, who was supportive of the idea and went to work on building the financing.

The $23 million fundraising effort announced Thursday is backed by several partners, including DTE Energy, Quicken Loans, The Skillman Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation and General Motors.  

Through its Connected Futures Project, all enrolled DPSCD students and families will receive wireless tablets and internet access. The idea was part of DPSCD’s long-term plan, but these investments did not impact the lack of connectivity at home. 

Melissa Ready, a parent at Detroit’s Paul Robeson Academy, is excited about the effort. 

Melissa Ready | Ken Coleman photo

“This has been a challenge for our kids,” Ready said about the COVID-19 school closure. “I’m grateful to everyone who has helped this to come along.” 

A portion of the $23 million, about $6 million, will go toward broadband infrastructure. 

“This entire program, from conception to funding, came together in less than three weeks,” said Bill Emerson, vice chair of Quicken Loans and Rock Holdings Inc., “This is the power of our community when we’re faced with a big challenge. I believe this is a program that will be a catalyst for generations.”

As previously reported by the Advance, about 12% of Michigan children — about 267,000 kids — live without access to the Internet, according to data gathered in 2018 by Kids Count in Michigan. About 50% of Detroit children live in a household that falls under the federal poverty threshold. 

“This is an unprecedented investment to immediately address an unprecedented crisis. Inequitable access to resources is one of the root reasons why Detroiters have been disproportionately impacted by COVID19,” said Nikolai Vitti, DPSCD general superintendent.

Nikolai Vitti, March 18, 2020 | Ken Coleman

The tablets should be in each student’s possession by June, Vitti said, and will be the property of the household, not DPSCD. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said that history will look at the announcement as the “moment that changed the trajectory of education in our city.”

“We have risen to the challenge of this pandemic and found a way to forge something positive for our children,” Duggan said. “This will be a defining moment of pride in Detroit for many, many years.”

Norcia said the concept also falls in line with DTE’s priorities. While students use the devices and Internet connection to learn, their families will be able to easily access sites that can help them with everything from applying for financial assistance to finding a job.

“When our executive team began prioritizing COVID-19 relief efforts, the issue of digital inequity for Detroit students rose to the top,” said Norcia. “We recognized that we needed to take action urgently to close the digital divide for these students and provide them with the tools necessary to thrive in the 21st century.”

Pandemic highlights gaps in internet access in Michigan and nationwide

Tonya Allen, Skillman Foundation president and CEO, called the investment essential.

“Digital access has evolved from a nicety to a necessity – and we cannot afford to let our children down,” Allen said. “We invite businesses and other philanthropic organizations – big and small – to join us in this ongoing effort to lift up the children of Detroit.”

Allen pointed out that conversations are also being carried out to expand the plan to public school students in Detroit who attend other districts. 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.