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Hamilton County Schools’ free internet program increases parental involvement, research shows

By August 9, 2022COVID-19

Since the EdConnect program launched in 2020, more than 16,000 low-income students — and 28,000 of their family members — have received free internet in their homes. While the effort works to close the digital divide, researchers have discovered another benefit: Parents are showing more involvement in the education of their children.

That is important because, historically, low-income families are less likely to be engaged with their children’s education, said Gabrielle Chevalier, marketing and communications manager for the Enterprise Center, one of the organizations that helped launch EdConnect.

“When you provide internet access ubiquitously to students and their families, you all of a sudden have this elimination of the difference between which families engage with the school and which don’t,” Chevalier said by phone.

In addition to the Enterprise Center, EdConnect was created through a $7.9 million partnership between Hamilton County Schools, Hamilton County, the city of Chattanooga, EPB and other public-private partners. It’s made possible by EPB’s unique communitywide fiber optic network.

“What’s so important for us is that it’s not abstract,” Geoff Millener, chief operating officer of the Enterprise Center, said by phone. “These are very real families. It’s not just about demonstrating that we did the work, it’s really about how the research can inform the program and ensure that it works well.”

(Read More: Hamilton County Schools, EPB partnership provides free internet access to one-third of district students)

Preliminary research from the past two years, conducted by Boston College researcher Damian Bebell with support from Jennifer Ellis of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, shows the program not only benefits the student but also has a lasting positive effect on the whole family.

“In our study, we found that a household’s broadband connectivity status was our strongest single predictor of parent use,” Bebell said in a news release. “In other words, households participating in the EdConnect program at the time of the survey reported significantly more frequent use of technology for supporting/connecting with their child’s school than those households who were eligible but not actively participating.”

The survey showed that 98% of enrolled families used EdConnect to interact with their child’s school, and 83% used the service to get information on their child’s academic progress.

Rachel Emond, community engagement specialist for Hamilton County Schools, said EdConnect has nearly eliminated racial disparities, in terms of parental involvement, for families participating in the program.

“We’ve seen it almost completely close the racial divide amongst white families, Black families and Hispanic families based on how they engage with schools,” Emond said in a phone call. “Previously, there were some disparities among racial groups and for those families who are enrolled in EdConnect, all three racial groups engage with their child’s school at equal levels, which is really incredible.”

Contributed photo by Gabrielle Chevalier / Preliminary research on Hamilton County Schools’ EdConnect program shows that free internet at home increases parental engagement for low-income families.

(Read More: How Hamilton County Schools is combating racial disparities in literacy)

Emond added that she’s seen a notable increase in Hispanic families’ ability to communicate with schools.

Schools are also taking advantage of virtual opportunities to connect with parents.

“We see a lot more schools implementing things like virtual individualized educational plan meetings or virtual parent-teacher conferences, which part of that had to do with the pandemic, but EdConnect allowed them to do,” Emond said. “They’ve continued to use those strategies because for a lot of families, that’s a much easier way to engage with their schools.”

The study also shows that 83% of enrolled families used their internet service to interact with health care providers. Others used it to learn new things or use the money they’ve saved on internet bills to invest in their family.

Millener, the Enterprise Center’s COO, said he recalls talking to a family that bought an Instant Pot so they could cook healthier meals together.

“It can sound a little small, but that’s such a fundamental, systemic change,” Millener said. “Making life-altering decisions because you’ve got more information, because you’ve got more money in your bank account every month, and because you’ve got this asset in your home.”

But there’s still more work to be done. Emond estimates there are around 33,000 students who are eligible for Ed Connect, but only 40% are enrolled.

Eligible students include those receiving free or reduced-cost lunch, those who attend a school where every student receives free or reduced-cost lunch or whose family participates in federal nutrition programs or receives other economic assistance.

Parents have the option to enroll via phone, an online form, a paper form and other ways depending on the school. Emond said officials are working to make the process easier and also looking for ways to engage community partners to get the word out.

Students are eligible for the EdConnect for up to 10 years, or the entirety of their time at Hamilton County Schools. Program funders are looking for additional funding so families can continue to have internet, if they need it, once their child graduates.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.


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