There is a big gap in Internet access between affluent neighborhoods of Fresno and rural communities around the city. Photo courtesy of Brad Flickinger/CreativeCommons

Fresno’s Digital Rich and Digital Poor

There is a big gap in Internet access between affluent neighborhoods of Fresno and rural communities around the city. Photo courtesy of Brad Flickinger/CreativeCommons

By Stan Santos

In 2019–2020, Fresno County schools enrolled 207,858 students, of which 140,000, or 65%, were Latino and 10,600 were African American. But there are pronounced disparities in the educational achievement levels of White, Latino and Black children, as well as urban versus rural, affluent versus poor. Broadband access follows the same historic patterns of systemic inequality with harsh and predictable consequences.

In 2018–2019, 68% of White students in 3rd–11th grades met or exceeded the State Standard for English and Language Arts (ELA). Only 42% of Hispanic and 31% of African American students achieved that metric. Of White students, 55% met or exceeded the State Standard for Math, but only 30% of Hispanics and 22% of African American students did so.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

In the north Fresno zip code 93711, Census data show a population that is 62% White, 24% Latino and 4% Black. On the west edge of 93711, there is a neighborhood of 110 homes, built in the 1950s. It is known as Sierra Sky Park and has its own private landing strip where “residents can land, taxi down extra-wide avenues, and pull up and park in the driveway at home” (Time magazine, Dec. 10, 1965).

In 93711, there are three elementary schools along the east-west artery of Herndon Avenue: Forkner, Malloch and Starr. Forkner is about a half-mile from the runway of Sierra Sky Park Airport. According to Census data, the median annual household income is $65,678.

  • Forkner Elementary has 532 students and reportedly spends $8,680 per student. In 2018–2019, 59% met or exceeded the ELA standard and 54% met or exceeded the math standard.
  • Malloch Elementary has 454 students and spends $7,485 per student; 57% met or exceeded the ELA standard and 57% met or exceeded the math standard.
  • Starr Elementary has 390 students and spends $11,014 per student; 55% met or exceeded the ELA standard and 57% met or exceeded the math standard.

Three West-Side Communities

Cantua Creek has a population of 466; 99% are Hispanic with a median household income of $36,366. Cantua Elementary has 161 students of which 30% met or exceeded the ELA standard and 23% met or exceeded the math standard.

Huron has a population of 7,281; 96% are Hispanic with a poverty rate of 46% and a median household income of $22,086. Huron Elementary has 822 students of which only 19% met or exceeded the ELA standard and 17% met or exceeded the math standard.

San Joaquin has a population of 4,043; 96% are Hispanic with a poverty rate of 44% and a median income of $26,215. San Joaquin Elementary has 587 students of which only 15% met or exceeded the ELA standard and 9% met or exceeded the math standard.

Another indicator of the disparities in education between urban and rural is the College Readiness Index (CRI), which measures the percentage of students who take and pass college admissions tests. Edison and Fresno high schools have CRI rates of 50% and 57%, respectively. In the west-side communities of Huron, Mendota, Firebaugh and Riverdale, CRI passing rates range from a low of 15% to a high of 30%.

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The average yearly investment per student for the three north Fresno elementary schools is $9,179. The average investment per student in the three west-side schools is $6,433. The disparities in the education of rural poor versus affluent neighborhoods are deep and systemic. During the pandemic of 2020, online learning for rural families followed the same historic patterns: Children in Fresno County’s west-side communities fell further behind their mostly White, upper-income counterparts.

The Digital Desert

In the north Fresno neighborhoods of 93711, promotions by broadband providers Comcast and AT&T show Internet access of 967–1,000 megabits per second (Mbps), also known as 1 Gig. Although actual speeds fluctuate, even half that speed would allow children to play Xboxes or PlayStations (25–50 Mbps) and stream Ultra HD Netflix (25 Mbps) while mom and dad are on social media, e-mailing or texting (5 Mbps) and working through video conference meetings with multiple partners (25 Mbps).

Five Points is a dusty community 35 miles southwest of Fresno with a population of about 1,100. It lies in zip code 93624; data show an average household income of $38,043.

The community has a cell tower and a small AT&T building; telecommunications cabinets and aerial fiber equipment dot the landscape throughout west Fresno County. But if a resident of 93624 queries the AT&T website for Internet, the response is, “Looks like high-speed Internet isn’t available at your address. However, you can still get great TV service.” Video channels are provided by AT&T via satellite dish.

Online Learning in Rural Fresno County

Baldomero Hernandez has been the principal/superintendent of Westside Elementary in Five Points since 1995. “Baldo” was highlighted once in The Atlantic, “Some people call Hernandez ‘maestro’ or ‘mayor’ and in many ways, that’s what he is. Their house sits next to the school and serves as a de facto Town Hall, counseling center, Internet cafe, and, on occasion, homeless shelter.”

Early in the pandemic, Westside staff surveyed parents and found that less than 10% of the families had Internet; most said that their cell phone was their only connection. In October, after several weeks of paper learning packets, Baldomero received Wi-Fi hotspots. Despite the delay and poor signal quality, online learning came to Westside.

In Mendota, the schools, the Fresno County Library and the Westside Youth Center shut down and kids were forced to sit outside the library, McDonald’s and Taco Bell to use Wi-Fi.

In March 2021, the Mendota Unified School District reported that it had distributed 1,856 hotspots among the 3,670 students. Dino Perez, director of Westside Youth, also works at the Mendota High Education Lab and observed how the Wi-Fi hotspots performed poorly at greater distances from the cell towers. 

Speed tests of school-issued Wi-Fi hotspots in Westside, Cantua Creek, Mendota, Firebaugh and other communities showed average download speeds of 4–6 Mbps with uploads at a fraction of that. One hotspot issued by Raisin City Elementary was tested two blocks from the school, but the signal was not sufficient to produce a report. Thousands of children in these communities lost more than a year of their education.

Social Determinants of Health

In August 2020, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) held a listening session with several community leaders in the Central Valley. The lack of broadband was the top item of concern. CDC officials stressed the need for increased dissemination of information during the pandemic, which was impossible when families were sheltering and unable to communicate with service providers.

The CDC subsequently shared a presentation titled “Incorporating Social Determinants of Health (SDH) into an Analysis of Health Disparities in Rural GA.” Key points were as follows:

  • Urban counties in Georgia have much higher broadband access (93.3%) than rural counties (60.5%).
  • Health outcome statistics track closely with high versus low broadband access. Covid-19 deaths were twice as high in counties with less than 60% broadband access.
  • Based on hypothesis testing, higher broadband access suggests reduced infant mortality, cancer mortality and diabetes prevalence; increased life expectancy; and reduced Covid-19 death rates. 

Conclusion: Broadband mitigates comorbidities and is “protective” against Covid-19 death rates.

Disadvantaged communities cannot return to the pre-pandemic status quo. Initiatives for addressing this will soon be resource-rich with public funds. But they must be guided to the poorest and historically underserved communities to achieve a truly equitable landscape in the Central Valley.

*****

Stan Santos is an activist in the immigrant and labor community. Contact him at comworkeradvocate@gmail.com.

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