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This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.

The Tandem has opened an outdoor internet cafe and tutoring center to aid Milwaukee students without access to the internet. Students receive meals and tutors will be paid up to $600. (Photo by Susan Vliet)

With the school year underway, K-12 families are still finding themselves without access to broadband or enough devices for each of their school-age children.

To close the gap in internet access, the education nonprofit City Forward Collective and the MPS Foundation, a nonprofit independent of Milwaukee Public Schools, are fundraising to ensure each school-age child has access.

In addition, Milwaukee Recreation, a department of MPS, has opened 51 child care locations equipped with Wi-Fi and tutoring help, while The Tandem at 1848 W. Fond Du Lac Ave. has unveiled its own drop-in center staffed with tutors to help students in grades 4-10 get online and complete their schoolwork.

As these efforts continue, City Forward Collective released the results last week of a poll that found that 30% of families surveyed (134 out of 447) said they did not have a separate computer or tablet for each school-aged child at home. In addition, 8.5% said they did not have reliable broadband internet access.

The poll was conducted by Deringer Research Group, a Brookfield-based consumer research firm, from July 21 to Aug. 31. It is demographically representative of the city’s parents and caregivers of school-age children, and has a margin of error of 3%, according to the City Forward Collective.

Though the City Forward Collective’s poll indicated that thousands of families are still without reliable broadband access, the group and the MPS Foundation have been fundraising to meet this need since COVID-19 closed schools in March.

The MPS Foundation’s #ConnectMilwaukee initiative has already raised over $1 million to buy and distribute 7,000 hotspots to MPS students. The City Forward Collective is raising an additional $450,000 to provide 2,240 hotspots to public charter and private school students, who are not covered under the MPS Foundation’s initiative. These devices were distributed to students over the summer.

On Sept. 15, the MPS Foundation launched Phase 2 of its campaign, which aims to raise an additional $1 million to fund more IT staff, help desk support and training for teachers.

MPS Foundation Executive Director Wendell Willis says supporting educators as they transition to online platforms is the biggest need he has heard in conversations with MPS.

“We’re building the plane as we fly it,” Willis said. “Over the summer the biggest need among our families was to address the cost of internet access, and now we’re focusing on providing the necessary support, training and tools to make online learning successful.”

Help for all students

Caitlin Cullen, owner of The Tandem, has opened an outdoor area for students to get Wi-Fi and tutoring help. Here, she talks with Damien Smith and Tyler Hadley from Safe and Sound about youth outreach. (Photo by Susan Vliet)

As fundraising efforts continue, Milwaukee Recreation and The Tandem have stepped up to offer Wi-Fi and tutoring help for students attending any school, MPS or non-MPS.

Though MPS classes remain completely virtual, Milwaukee Recreation is holding in-person support at 51 locations. Hours differ by location, but there is Wi-Fi access and staff available to help students navigate online learning platforms and traditional tutoring.

Leighton Cooper, Milwaukee Rec’s coordinator of before- and after-school programs, said that 870 students have registered for Milwaukee Recreation’s before- and after-school programs in the first two weeks. Cooper said families should enroll as soon as possible.

“Our numbers continue to grow as families become more aware of this option, and our capacity at each location is limited in order to practice social distancing and do all the things we need to do to keep everyone safe,” Cooper said.

The Tandem also is offering resources to meet students’ internet and tutoring needs. The restaurant has already been providing free community meals in response to COVID-19, but this month opened an outdoor area for any student in grades 4-10 to come by and use Wi-Fi for school and get tutoring help Tuesdays-Thursdays and every weekday starting Sept. 28.

Students who come will receive free food from The Tandem, and owner Caitlin Cullen said tutors with a GED or high school diploma will be paid up to $600 total. In addition, Cullen said that for every five days students attend, they’ll get free prizes such as T-shirts. Cullen hopes this will motivate students to continue coming by throughout the school year.

“We’ll get some heat lamps, and we’ll be here as long as we can,” Cullen said. “At that point, we’ll have worked out the kinks of how to run this program and we’ll find a nearby community center that can house this when it’s too cold to be outside.”

How you can help

You can donate to the MPS Foundation’s campaign here, and the City Forward Collective’s campaign here.

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