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Lightfoot expands year-old program aimed at bridging digital divide

Chicago Public high school graduates would be guaranteed three additional months of free, high-speed internet service — and those going on to City Colleges would get the perk for up to three years.

A Chicago Public Schools student types on a computer keyboard.
A program launched a year ago to help more CPS students access the internet from home is being expanded and will now allow CPS graduates to get free internet while attending City Colleges of Chicago.
Associated Press

Chicago Public high school graduates would be guaranteed three more months of free, high-speed internet service — and those going on to City Colleges would get the perk for up to three years — thanks to an extension of a groundbreaking program bankrolled in part by Illinois’ richest man.

It was nearly a year ago to the day that Mayor Lori Lightfoot turned to hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin and some of Chicago’s most powerful philanthropies to help bridge the digital divide holding back students and their parents in the city’s most impoverished South and and West Side neighborhoods.

Griffin agreed to contribute $7.5 million to help bankroll the first half of a four-year program known as “Chicago Connected.”

Other major donors included Crown Family Philanthropies ($5 million); the Chicago Community COVID Response Fund, administered by The Chicago Community Trust and United Way of Metro Chicago ($2.5 million); Illinois Tool Works ($2 million); the Pritzker Traubert Foundation ($1.5 million); the JPB Foundation ($500,000); and the Joyce Foundation ($250,000).

Another $750,000 commitment was made by former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle; the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; and The Chicago Community Trust to the Children’s First Fund, the philanthropic arm of CPS.

City Hall vowed to round out the first two years of funding by contributing $5 million in federal coronavirus stimulus funds. CPS agreed to bankroll the third and fourth years.

At the time, Lightfoot anticipated the $50 million program would deliver free access to high-speed internet service to roughly 100,000 CPS students over four years.

Instead, “Chicago Connected” has reached 64,000 students across 42,000 households — still enough to bridge “nearly two-thirds” of the digital divide, according to City Hall.

The proposed expansion aims to do even more:

• Internet service for CPS high school graduates continues through Oct. 31, instead of ending Tuesday, the last day of school.

• Graduating seniors attending City Colleges this fall will get free internet service for up to three years or until they complete their City Colleges degrees, whichever comes first. The mayor’s office called it a “first step toward expanding Chicago Connected to public university students.” City Colleges expects to enroll anywhere from 600 to 1,000 CPS students this year who will be eligible for the offer of free high-speed internet.

• Chicago Connected participants now will can build test and computer skills, thanks to a new digital learning platform that includes free access to online portals with classroom curricula, training materials and thousands of assessments.

As the coronavirus pandemic forced CPS to shut down, one in five Chicago children lacked access to reliable in-home internet, according to an April 2020 study released by Kids First Chicago. One in three CPS students started remote learning without a computer.

Distribution of Chromebooks, bankrolled by federal stimulus funds and other emergency spending, has largely eliminated that problem — but many homes still lack access to high-speed internet service.

“The pandemic has reinforced the notion once and for all that internet access isn’t a luxury but a necessity,” Lightfoot said in a press release.

“Chicago Connected is a groundbreaking program that has and will continue to help close the digital divide, which further restricts access to high-quality education, health care, social services, jobs and more. I am thrilled to continue this work by expanding Chicago Connected to our community college students and help open more doors of opportunity for our residents.”

Griffin was quoted as saying he is proud of the “great strides” made over the last year toward “empowering Chicago’s students to pursue their dreams and realize their fullest potential. ... Chicago Connected has shown communities across the United States that, when we bridge the digital divide, we offer young people a critical pathway to success.”