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Burton Heights/Garfield Park

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An apple a day is the new Burton way: How students of color are gaining access to the tech sector






Jobs in the tech industry have been growing exponentially over the past two decades. Despite the availability of jobs in this sector, it continues to fail at employing people of color. Teachers and creatives in Grand Rapids are making efforts to ensure the younger generation gains access to these spaces and are dramatically transforming what the industry will look like.
Loud giggles and whispers of conversations resounded on that early Thursday morning of Oct. 20 as the students of Burton Elementary expectantly lined up outside the doors of the school. The students were anxious and excited. They had been told this day was special.  This day would change the ways they learned and interacted in the classroom. This day would open doors for future opportunities. This day marked the celebration of access to digital technology for every student at Burton Elementary School. 

For the communities of Burton Heights, where 82 percent of the residents are people of color, according to census data obtained from Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University access to digital technology is crucial. Even though people of color are the fastest growing users of smartphones and social media, the tech sector continue to be unreflective of its users. According to a report prepared by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity commission, whites make up 64 to 68 percent of the workforce in this industry. People of color are not the only ones being excluded from these spaces, with women accounting for only 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in engineering, computer science, and physics and make up less than 20 percent of the executives in the tech industry. 

“Many of our students do not get the opportunity to leave this community, which means they’re missing experiences to learn about the world and their place in it,” explains John Helmholdt, Executive Director of Communications and External Affairs for Grand Rapids Public Schools.

With a student population made up by 96 percent students of color, Burton Elementary School is a prime spot to help lift up a community that has been excluded from the tech industry since its' inception. 

 
Students from Burton Elementary School walk the red carpet on October 20th celebrating receiving access to Apple technology in their classroom.

Adequate and meaningful learning opportunities are the driving forces for the teachers at Burton Elementary School, but without suitable technology resources the task of ensuring students learning English receive the necessary support proves to be very difficult. To help break this barrier, former Burton Elementary Principal Ana Aleman-Putnam and Jen Magalski, a fifth-grade teacher at Burton Elementary, partnered together to find tangible solutions to help enhance learning in Burton's classrooms.  
 
“In order to keep up with 21st century learning, we had to look to outside sources for technology options,” states Magalski.
 
After learning about ConnectEd grants that help provide the most advanced Apple technology to classrooms in marginalized communities, Magalski saw this as an opportunity to help her students gain access to technology they didn't otherwise have access to before. 

"Former Principal Ana Aleman-Putman received the grant packet, and I volunteered to write it over the summer of 2014," describes Magalski. 

In late 2014, the school was notified their request had been accepted; the teachers and administrators were thrilled of the ways they would be able to integrate the technology to existing curriculum to enhance the learning and make it more meaningful. 

"With the iPads, we can open up so many learning opportunities for our kids.  It's just amazing.  Students now have access to virtual field trips, document creation, learning apps, and so much more," says Magalski. 

Beginning this school year, all students at Burton Elementary  will be able to explore, ask questions and learn by using 21st century technology standards. Access to this technology is made possible thanks to a partnership between Apple and President Barack Obama’s ConnectEd Initiative, a program started in June 2013 to ensure all students are able to learn in interactive and personalized ways via the newest forms of technology. As part of Burton's $1 million dollar grant, the teachers have received over 100 Apple products to help in the classroom and more than 540 iPads have been given to students. 

“The possibilities are endless, as we know their imaginations will be using this tool to explore deeper real-life connections,” explains Helmholdt.
 
These tools will not only expose students to the newest technology, but also provide teachers with ways to adapt their lesson plans at the touch of a button based on each student’s unique learning style and capacity.  

“Students can activate the text to speech feature.  This allows students to hear and follow along with text that may be above their independent level. There are features that help students pronounce and define new vocabulary.  This is so helpful for students at Burton, many of whom are learning English as a second language” Magalski says.
 
Magalski is not alone in her efforts to boost learning for students of color via technology. In February of this year, Jonathan Jelks and Alvin Hills partnered to launch the Midwest Tech Project, a mentorship program to expose black and Latinx GRPS students with the skills they need to engage in the tech industry.
 
“Preparing ethnic minorities for the technology driven economy is not only a workforce development priority but it's an extension of civil rights,” describes Jelks.
 
Teresa Weatherall Neil, Superintendent of GRPS, greets Burton Elementar School student.

In the last 15 years, the technology industry sector has grown in unprecedented ways. According to data analysis of the workforce within the tech sector from the Pew Research Center,  the sector has nearly doubled its workforce, taking up 3 percent of the nation’s payroll workforce.
 
“The tech industry is going to comprise 75 percent percent of the workforce in the next 20 years. Our community cannot afford for students of color to be excluded from the workforce that is going to anchor Michigan's 21st century economy,” explains Jelks.
 
Oct. 20, 2016 was indeed a day of celebration for the students and teachers at Burton Elementary School.  A celebration of the increased access many students of color in Burton Heights will now have to technology.  An invaluable resource to excite and prepare them for a future where they get to think and develop digital technology accessible to all.
 
“Preparing young people with a tech education is one of the best ways to address the disparities in the Grand Rapids community” – Jonathan Jelks, co-founder of the Midwest Tech Project.
                                                                                                                                                           
On The Ground GR
 
On The Ground GR is a new Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found along South Division Avenue that touch the Garfield Park and Burton Heights neighborhoods. You can read all the On The Ground articles published to date here
 
Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.
 
Follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter using the hashtag #OnTheGroundGRFacebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at michellejokisch@gmail.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
 
On The Ground GR is made possible by the Frey Foundation, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Steelcase, organizations that believe democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. 

Photography by Kristina Bird
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