Sep. 27, 2017 11:22 am

Two Philly schools are featured in a NatGeo documentary about the digital divide

"Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America," which features the contrasting Lower Merion and William Penn school districts, focuses on how the lack of technology available to certain schools affects students nationwide.

Jameira Miller in "Without a Net."

(Courtesy image)

A trailer for the documentary “Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America” opens up with a high school student from Lower Merion High School’s robotics team explaining how her robot operates using code she wrote on an accompanying laptop.

A few seconds later, we hear from Jameira Miller, a former high school student at Penn Wood High School in the William Penn School District, say that she will most likely not use a computer at all during her school day.

This contrast in experiences between the students from these two Philly-area schools, only five miles apart from each other, sets the tone for the National Geographic documentary from Academy Award-nominated director Rory Kennedy that focuses on the technological inequalities that permeate schools in both inner-city and rural areas across the nation.

The film premiered yesterday, but you can watch it here.

Miller, who is now a freshman finance major at Villanova University’s School of Business, is featured in the documentary to show how a lack of technological resources and tech education in schools can be downright “frustrating,” a word that came up often when she was describing her experiences during an interview with Generocity.

For example, she spent many a lunch at her library’s computer lab to try to catch up on work because the computers there weren’t regularly available otherwise; they were often reserved by other classes that needed to use them.

And for Miller, she said during classes like Spanish or English, certain computer activities were crucial for students to have more personal time in evaluating themselves and seeing how they were doing in the classes.

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“The experience always really bothered me,” Miller said.

Miller said she didn’t notice at first how much her school lacked in general resources. It wasn’t until she visited other schools in the area for her extracurriculars, such as marching band, that she started to realize it. For one, her school didn’t have a track field.

"You can’t expect to educate one percent of the students while 90 percent of them do not have the information that they need to qualify for future jobs, and expect our nation to still be on top."
Jamella Miller

But then there were other issues with the school that she and her classmates couldn’t help but notice, like a hole in the side of the school building that Miller said made it constantly cold, even with a heater.

So while the documentary does focus on technology, Miller said it’s just “one battle that many students face” when it comes to adequate funding for schools overall.

Her mother and father, Jamella and Bryant Miller, have spoken publicly about the issue of inequity in school funding and resources at various town hall and school board meetings, as well as getting involved in a lawsuit in 2014 against Pennsylvania’s Department of Education and various state officials that claimed the state failed to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.”

(Since that initial lawsuit, a report earlier this year from the local nonprofit law firm Education Law Center highlighted the racial and class inequalities present in Pennsylvania school funding. The most recent action from the case took place last September when the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the lawsuit but didn’t come to a decision.)

The documentary, which started filming a year ago, shows the experience Miller and her family go through, and they hope that what it captured shows audiences what’s at stake when it comes to the lack of funding for certain school districts.

For Jamella Miller, who has discovered her three daughters’ futures could be based off district funding that is more dependent on “politically savviness” rather than actual neediness, it’s also about the future of the America.

“You can’t expect to educate one percent of the students while 90 percent of them do not have the information that they need to qualify for future jobs,” she said, “and expect our nation to still be on top.”


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