Closing the Digital Divide


Melanie Fisk, Senior Director of Adult Education at BakerRipley, talks about going remote, helping students stay connected, and working to close the digital divide in Houston.

In some Houston communities, a person might have a plan with good internet speed, but no infrastructure for it to work correctly, making it useless. This is just one example of the digital connectivity barriers our neighbors face daily as they work for a better life.

“Fixing the digital divide has to be one of our top priorities as a city, the internet should be a utility like water or electricity,” said Melanie Fisk, Senior Director of Adult Education.

In some cases, accessing critical resources or assistance requires online-only applications. Those who don’t have connectivity have to go to a local church or somewhere to file their application.

“In a city, everyone should have access to the internet, it’s a must for our neighbors,” added Melanie.

The online classroom

Back in March, the BakerRipley Adult Education program transitioned more than 200 students into online classrooms.

“We called every single student in our system to check on them, to make sure they were healthy, and to survey them about their learning preferences in this new environment,” added Melanie.

Currently, there are around 450 active students in the system.

In addition, BakerRipley worked with Houston Community College to ensure that our students were able to complete their medical billing certificates. To make this happen, we loaned them some laptops to keep them connected.

Before COVID-19, there were already plans for new virtual offerings, and like with many things, the pandemic just accelerated the implementation.

“Our number one goal was to assess our online capabilities in adult education. We knew that providing new online classes would allow us to reach more neighbors,” commented Melanie.

And so far, enrollment for the fall hasn’t decreased compared to last year as new classes come online.

Student Support Services

BakerRipley also launched student support services in back February. A timely coincidence that has been of great help for our students during the pandemic.

“Our support services team works with the instructors to ensure that all our students can get connected and know how to use Zoom or Google Classroom,” said Melanie.

In addition, a new resource classroom page and student announcement system was implemented during this time. The page is updated daily with announcements about available resources from organizations all around the city.

Partnerships make Houston stronger

This fall, we’ll have a pipefitting and electrical technology class through our partnership with San Jacinto College.

Looking forward, BakerRipley is working with other partners to distribute Chromebooks to neighbors that are part of our socioeconomic mobility programs. The plan is to disperse around 700 computers with two years of connectivity included.

“We’re also launching a laptop loan program and hope to have around 200 computers to support adult education, small business, and immigration classes for the next four years,” added Melanie.

In line with goals to increase digital literacy in our communities, BakerRipley is expanding this program to all six centers starting in October.

Mobile-friendly for our neighbors

In some communities around Houston, the only piece of hardware our neighbors have is their smartphone.

“It’s difficult to take an online class on a mobile phone and a lot of materials you can’t really use on the phone,” explained Melanie.

To adjust, BakerRipley tested a web-based software called BurlingtonEnglish for three semesters. After that, it designed a cloud-based ESL curriculum that is mobile friendly.

“We made sure our instructors and students were able to easily use it,” added Melanie.

Our students have provided positive feedback about the curriculum as it makes it easy for them to learn.

What will Houston need next?

As Houston recovers, BakerRipley will work to identify what industries will need support and skilled labor. Likewise, working with partners and our Workforce Solutions offices, we need to ensure our neighbors get connected to the industries that are hiring.

“We need to bring the right opportunities to our students, not just any opportunity, but the right opportunity,” said Melanie.

Above all, for these programs to reach their full potential, there needs to be a citywide effort to get all neighbors connected to broadband. This is a must in our efforts to close the digital divide.