When the pandemic first forced schools to shut down and begin virtual learning, everyone realized just how important Internet access is to navigating through society.

Research from LEANLAB Education found that more than 12,000 students from 22 Kansas City Public Schools did not have Internet access at home and more than 2,500 were in need of laptops to complete their school work.

The study also found that students lacking Internet connectivity mirrored the city’s segregation patterns, with students living east of Troost Avenue — the city’s racial dividing line —  having the highest number of households without reliable Internet and devices for virtual learning.

Citywide, 14% of households do not have a home internet connection and 10% of households do not have a computer. However, in the Third District, located east of Troost Avenue, about 26% lack Internet connection at home and about 21% do not have a computer.

As a way to bridge this digital divide east of Troost Avenue, the city, aSTEAM Village and other partners including the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Lincoln University and AT&T, launched a pilot program called Digital KC Now to bring increased Internet connectivity, infrastructure and literacy to the Third District.

aSTEAM,a local nonprofit that focuses on educating students in science, technology, engineering, arts and math, will be at the forefront of the program.  They will hire, train and mentor a young workforce ages 16 to 26 from the Third District.  The youth workforce will focus on learning the trade of building connectivity and they will also educate the community about how to use the Internet and the literacy aspect. 

aSTEAM founder William Wells said Digital KC Now is a plan that will digitally and economically transform the Third District. Wells, along with other industry professionals through the National Society of Black Engineers and educators from Lincoln University and UMKC will instruct the workforce, providing hands-on learning.

The workers will be trained in topics including cybersecurity, Wi Fi networking and how the Internet works. By the time students receive their high school diploma, they’ll have industry certifications in areas including computer science and networking technology.

“aSTEAM Village is filling the pipeline with trained young minds to meet 21st Century workforce demands,” said Chester Thompson, Jr., chairman of aSTEAM Village’s board of directors.

For residents without connectivity, the workforce will connect community members to the Digital KC Now network, using Internet that’s available in their area including Google Fiber, AT&T and Spectrum. 

“Part of the workforce makes sure community members feel comfortable with those tools and have a good foundation so they can use these tools to schedule things like doctor’s appointments and attend online college classes, beyond just shopping and entertainment,” said Melissa Kozakiewicz, assistant city manager.

“We’re making sure people are informed and utilize the Internet to pull into our economy,” said Wells. “If we do this right, you’ll see your median household income, healthcare indexes and graduation rates increase.  When those things increase, that means you’ve pulled more families out of living in survival mode. When you live in survival mode, your decision making process is different. You take chances and usually those chances put you in jail or dead. So organically, when we increase those key indicators, then we should see a reduction in crime.”

“Connecting businesses and residents to the internet in underserved communities is a fundamental step in providing an infrastructure of equity and opportunity,” said Melissa Robinson, Third District councilwoman. “Educating people on how to use the internet is key to improving quality of life for our residents.”

The city is contributing $500,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund the pilot project for two years. The youth workforce will be employed by aSTEAM, not the city.The program will help up to 3,000 residents in the Third District needing Internet connectivity and a full understanding of how to use it.

Partners with Digital KC NOW, including Lincoln University, AT&T and UMKC, say the program will generate more economic development and growth east of Troost Avenue, especially for young people who will gain skills that will open up future career possibilities.

“We’re committed to finding solutions that are exciting, innovative and led by the community,” said Kozakiewicz. “We encourage folks if they do have other ideas or other kinds of projects that they think would make an impact in their community, we would love to hear about them.”

To learn more about Digital KC NOW, visit: https://digitalkcnow.flywheelsites.com/

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