For Middletown superintendent, DeWine’s signing of digital divide law follows years of efforts

Middletown City Schools superintendent Marlon Styles, Jr. speaks before Ohio Governor Mike Dewine signs House Bill 2 for the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program during a press conference Monday, May 17, 2021 at Amanda Elementary School in Middletown. The program awards grants to providers to fund the construction of broadband projects in unserved and underserved areas in the state of Ohio. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF
Middletown City Schools superintendent Marlon Styles, Jr. speaks before Ohio Governor Mike Dewine signs House Bill 2 for the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program during a press conference Monday, May 17, 2021 at Amanda Elementary School in Middletown. The program awards grants to providers to fund the construction of broadband projects in unserved and underserved areas in the state of Ohio. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

This week’s public signing in Middletown by Ohio’s governor of a law to help bridge the digital divide for needy school families was also a personal victory of sorts for the leader of the city schools.

Middletown Schools Superintendent Marlon Styles Jr. was among the Butler County school officials joining the signing ceremony by Governor Mike DeWine and the new funding from the law has been a goal of Styles in recent years.

ExploreDeWine visits Middletown to sign affordable internet access bill

Styles, along with other local school leaders, has lobbied state and U.S. Congressional leaders on the need to give low income families access to at-home digital learning - through wireless internet access and laptops – so to keep pace with students from families with such resources.

But the city school leader, who since his hiring in 2017 has launched sweeping reforms of the 6,400-student district, said it’s not about him.

“I don’t consider the broadband bill a private victory since it was a collective effort between Butler Tech, Middletown City School District, and Southwest Ohio Computer Association (SWOCA) to knock down the (digital divide) for almost 700 Butler County students,” Styles said Thursday.

“Collectively the joint project will result in students from Lakota, Monroe, and Middletown having high speed Internet in their homes.”

The new law will provide affordable access to high-speed internet statewide making it easily for their children to learn.

The bill provides $20 million statewide to fund the broadband project with plans to secure $200 million in funding that has wide support from Republicans and Democrats, DeWine said during a press conference at Amanda Elementary School in Middletown.

Middletown is one of the few school systems in southwest Ohio at which 100 percent of school families fall within household income categories to qualify for federal free and reduced school meals.

About 20 percent of Middletown’s 6,300 students come from homes without access either via internet cable or wireless systems to digital learning programs produced by their teachers in the district. Many students also lack computers, or other mobile devices on which to learn digitally, said district officials.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March of 2020 thrust the issue into the forefront as schools across the nation had to shutter schools and scramble to try to teach children at home.

Middletown school officials and teachers cobbled together various strategies but had to still resort in some cases to teachers driving to students’ homes and delivering and picking up paper lesson assignments because their families had no internet access.

Styles has long championed the cause to bridging the digital gap and has become one of the more high-profile faces nationwide for advocating for more funding.

Last year the superintendent testified remotely to U.S. House of Representatives’ Education and Labor Committee on the issue.

ExploreMiddletown school leader tells Congress of his district’s digital gap

Styles told Congressional leaders: “The (digital) equity gap is taking center stage in this country,” Styles said. “Students are either logged in or logged out” of internet learning.

Styles said there is still more to be done.

“At graduation, I used the line ‘you didn’t come this far to only come this far,’”

“Ohio has come a long way in addressing the inequities represented by the (digital divide), but it must continue to embrace opportunities to provide equity for all Ohio students to pursue their dreams.”

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