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Bridging digital divide imperative to help at-risk Black and Latino teens as COVID-19 widens inequities, experts say

HOUSTON – John Bedman, 13, clicked away at the color options on the menu. Graphic design has become a hobby of his, although he wants to be an attorney when he grows up. Bedman sits at a computer in a room branded graphic design. It’s a space that’s become a second home for the curious eighth-grader.

“I’m more of a hands-on person. That’s why I can express myself better,” Bedman said, crediting the space for what he’s learned. He’s enrolled in The Urban Enrichment Institute, an extra-curricular youth leadership and development program for young men deemed “at-risk,” located in one of Houston’s poorest communities.

“These boys are not only fighting to stay focused on going to school but still some socioeconomic pressures that come on families in this area and this neighborhood,” said Charles Savage, Executive Director of the Urban Enrichment Institute. The program was founded in 1984 with a mission to reach young boys in Fifth Ward.

READ ALSO: COVID-19 exposes major disparities between neighboring Houston-area communities — Gulfton and Bellaire

“We were losing boys not only to dropout but also to the juvenile justice system and in many cases to death and destruction because of the crack-cocaine epidemic that hit our streets,” Savage said.

More than 30 years later, the organizations’ goal of keeping teen boys of color out of what’s called the school to prison pipeline hasn’t changed.

“Our boys are looking at not only fighting those things that poverty brings about, or even being at the poverty level challenges with but we’re talking about transportation. We’re talking about family structure, support at home to help them get through some of these tough times. We’re talking about having them go to school on sustained basis to schools, hopefully within walking distance of their homes, yet not being able to sustain being able to go to school because of problems in the home,” Savage said.

Not to mention a pandemic, experts advise.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on education can be seen from multiple perspectives. From online versus in-person learning, to access to technology, among other factors, the pandemic has exacerbated inequities long present, according to community advocates.

“COVID-19 has presented to us as showing the gaps that have already existed and how these gaps are widening now,” Savage said, referring to students with parents who have lost jobs, or risk losing their home during the pandemic.

The Urban Enrichment Institute hosted its annual summer program last month, although this year was different. Savage said 70% of students enrolled participated from home. The other 30% were allowed inside. The program provided students with the technology needed to participate.

“We’ve seen a need for virtual learning. In our summer program, this was the first time we had the chance to initiate a virtual learning format with our summer program,” Savage said.

Lack of access aside, Savage worries not keeping in contact with students could open the door to distractions.

“When they’re distracted by those things that do not bode well for them because there is nothing else to do, that’s when we start losing them. So, we know that we’re going to have to be really, really attentive to the needs of our boys and their families,” Savage said.

Prairie View A&M University hosted a summit this month to explore those concerns, as well as solutions to fixing them, with a specific focus on community programs that mentor Black and Latino males – like Urban Enrichment Institute.

Professors: research still being gathered on COVID-19′s overall impact on students’ outcome

While the data is still being tallied, two professors from Prairie View A&M University designed a summit this month for community organizations to learn more about the effects COVID-19 has had on young men of color.

There is research, however, on the impact of the technological divide during the coronavirus.

The “2nd Annual Summit on Improving the Outcomes of African American and Latinx Male Youth” took place via Zoom and was hosted by the university’s Texas Juvenile Crime Prevention Center and the Minority Achievement Creativity and High Ability Center.

Dr. Susan Frazier-Kouassi, director of the Texas Juvenile Crime Prevention Center, said COVID-19′s role in influencing the path for youth already deemed at risk is the focus of new research and conversation underway at Prairie View A&M University. For starters, organizations that participated in the summit will be included in a database of area organizations.

To be clear, experts said inequality impacts all children — no matter gender. However, Dr. Fraizier-Kouassi and Dr. Stella Smith, associate director of the Minority Achievement Creativity and High Ability Center, said research shows inequality affecting Black and Latino males much earlier.

“Starting as early as even Kindergarten up until age three. We start seeing differences in how African American and Latinx boys are performing in school, how they are treated in school. Disciplinary actions,” Dr. Frazier-Kouassi said.

That, in turn, could impact how students see themselves, Dr. Smith said.

Both professors said the biggest educational challenge is bridging the technological divide. Accomplishing that is contingent upon bringing community leaders together – giving them a voice in the debate over what students will face in an uncertain school year.

“Bringing everyone together in order to develop those communities. Have a space for networking. Have a space for all the stakeholders that are focused on Latinx and African American male youth,” said Dr. Smith.

What is Stronger Houston?

As Houston’s first television station and after more than 70 years of broadcasting, KPRC continues to work to serve our community. In our series Stronger Houston,” we examine issues impacting people inequitably by race, gender, income, age, geography, religion, and other factors. These fault lines can create unfair divides in our community. We strive to not only raise awareness but also focus on solutions, resources available, and the people and groups working to reduce the disparity and ultimately create a stronger Houston.