District of Columbia Public Schools officials are testing out a digital partnership with Verizon that targets high-poverty students at three schools. If successful, the pilot program may eventually roll out to all middle schools.

Students at Truesdell Education Campus work on tablets that Verizon awarded to the school as part of a partnership between the company and DCPS that preps students of color for STEM careers. (Courtesy Photo)

Students at Truesdell Education Campus work on tablets that Verizon awarded to the school as part of a partnership between the company and DCPS that preps students of color for STEM careers. (Courtesy Photo)

Under the two-year partnership, which began in the fall, Verizon invested $1.6 million at three schools — Columbia Heights Education Campus, Hart Middle School, and Truesdell Education Campus.  The money covers courses in math enrichment and an introduction to computer development, labs, a technology coach, and tablets for each student and program teachers.

School officials are eyeing the program’s tablet component as one they’d like to replicate for all middle schools once the partnership is over, said John Rice, D.C., director of educational technology for secondary schools. “It depends certainly on money as well as the new chancellor’s priorities,” Rice said.

By the second year, Verizon officials said they hope to see innovation, collaboration, and new ideas from the other teachers in the program. The kids will also learn how to code and create videos on the tablets.

A total of 1,020 students at the schools take part in the initiative, called the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program. Nationwide 46 schools are in the program, which has been around since 2014.  Verizon picks schools based on their high percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch, said Justina Nixon-Saintil, director of corporate social responsibility development for the Verizon Foundation.

District data shows 100 percent of the students at all three schools receive free and reduced lunch. Moreover, 35 percent of the students at Columbia Heights are Black, while Hart is 98 percent Black, and Truesdell is 29 percent Black.

By developing STEM education programs that offer technology and hands-on learning to students who may not otherwise get those opportunities, Verizon is doing its part to level the playing field for students of color living in underserved neighborhoods and prepare them for related careers.  “We’re giving them the tools and the access that a lot of other kids who have resources have had access to — there’s no more excuses,” said Nixon-Saintil, who implements programs to boost underserved students’ STEM interest and academic achievement. “Kids can no longer say, ‘I don’t have access’ or ‘I didn’t have a computer to work on.’”

The school system already has a department devoted to STEM and recently launched a math curriculum in the elementary schools that emphasizes engineering, Rice said.

The three schools the district recommended for the program were already prioritizing technology and the teachers are committed to taking it to the next level, Rice said.  Verizon’s program also fits in with one of the school district’s strategic goals to help the lowest performing schools. “This further supported one of our existing goals and allowed us to provide more access and more opportunity for those schools,” Rice said of the partnership. “Viewing (Verizon) as helping us test something out that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to test out is, I think, the right approach.”