by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer
NBC’s “Today Show” co-anchor Craig Melvin had to hop on a plane from Manhattan to McKeesport; the surprise so big and so vital to the community that the surprise had to be revealed live on national television.
Flanked by McKeesport High School cheerleaders, the band, some football players and school district officials, everyone pretty much lost it on Friday morning, Sept. 18, when they saw a truck filled with thousands of Dell laptop computers. Melvin announced during the onslaught of excitement that each McKeesport High School and Middle School student and teacher would receive their own computer to keep for free, along with a one year of free Internet access. It was all thanks to Comcast and its Internet Essentials program.
“I really feel like, finally, the kids get a break,” said an emotional McKeesport Area School District Superintendent Mark Holtzman Jr. on the NBC broadcast. “They get what they deserve, and they deserve it.”
A win-win for McKeesport
The coronavirus pandemic has further magnified the digital divide in school systems across the country. Some school districts, such as North Allegheny and Mt. Lebanon, are home to families with higher incomes, and those homes are more prone to having computers and Internet access for their children. But in local school districts like Pittsburgh and McKeesport, many families are classified as low-income, making children in the home more susceptible to not having computers or Internet access. Without either technology, students are unable to access their classes from home, which has been the rule rather than the exception in many districts across the country, including Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Public Schools district is having all 23,000 students learn from home for at least the next six weeks.
COMPUTER ELITE—The Dell laptop shown proudly by a Comcast representative is the one all McKeesport High School and Middle School students will receive for free. The suprise announcement was made on national television, Sept. 18. (Photos courtesy Comcast)
McKeesport’s school district has roughly 3,200 students, more than 40 percent African American. NBC News reported that 65 percent of the students in the district live below the poverty line. And it’s been a tough road for the school district, as it tried to juggle just how to reopen or not reopen the physical school locations, and how it could provide laptop computers to all students who needed them for home-based learning.
The pandemic also came with the challenges of many of the district’s students and parents being employed, but at the same time, increasing the possibly of being exposed to COVID-19 while at work, or heading to and from work. In some wealthier school districts, parents could work from home, oftentimes earning the same salary, without being exposed to the outside world. And the youth in these wealthier districts oftentimes don’t have to work for the financial betterment of the household.
“There were a lot of struggles,” Holtzman said on NBC. “Education really took a backseat, because we were worried about meeting the children’s needs, and what was their home life like, and what (were) some challenges they were facing; were they getting enough to eat…”
Comcast is more than just the dominant cable TV provider in Pittsburgh—they’re one of the world’s major media companies. Comcast owns NBCUniversal, is the top Internet provider in the U.S., and owns the film studio Universal Studios. A decade ago, the company began its Internet Essentials program as a way to bridge the gap between low-income families and Internet access. Eligible low-income families can sign up for Internet Essentials for $9.95 per month, but much of Internet Essentials’ impact comes from a collaboration between public and private entities.
Comcast has recently partnered with more than 70 schools to provide Internet access to students in Pittsburgh, Portland, Chicago, Atlanta, Sacramento and Arlington, Va.
And you can now add McKeesport to the list.
“We’ve seen firsthand that low-cost Internet access is an important part of improving digital equity and creating positive opportunities for low-income students and families,” said Dana Strong, President of Xfinity Consumer Services, on Comcast’s website. “Through this new partnership program, we are accelerating the efforts of cities, schools, philanthropies, nonprofits, and private citizens to collaborate and open the doors of Internet access for more families in need.”
“They’re the greatest group in the world, our staff, our students,” Holtzman said. “The idea that they (the students) need us; we need them. They teach us as many lessons as we’re able to teach them. And we’re very proud to continue to move them in the direction that they all can have success in the future, in whatever they choose to do.”
The entire celebration on the morning of Sept. 18 took place on McKeesport’s football field. Even though NBC’s cameras left the scene shortly after the presentation, McKeesport’s football team, the Tigers, decided to keep the party going by trampling over New Castle later that evening, 49-27.
September 18, 2020; a date that was a win-win all around for the historic, blue-collar, closely-knit city of McKeesport.
“You may not (always) see it, the success, on a test score, but if you come and watch how our students change classes (inside the schools),” a proud Holtzman, a 1997 McKeesport High School graduate, said on NBC, “and how they interact with each other with respect, and they’re able to sit and make good decisions…that’s sometimes really the most important pieces that move towards citizenship, career-oriented, college opportunities, things that will allow them to be successful.”
NBC “Today Show” co-anchor Craig Melvin surprised McKeesport High School students on national television with free laptop computers and free Internet access, Sept. 18. It was made possible through Comcast and its Internet Essentials program. (Photo courtesy Comcast)