Thomas Hager, a senior at Pike County’s Belfry High School, said the upgrades in technology made at his school and others in the region “will change the outlook for us in Eastern Kentucky.”
Hager is featured in a documentary called “Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America” as a student at a school that is progressive in providing technology. Narrated by actor Jamie Foxx, the documentary is set to air at 10 p.m. Sept. 26 on the National Geographic channel. Directed by Academy Award nominee Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of the late U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, the documentary is screening at the New York Film Festival, which begins this month.
The film highlights schools around the country — some, like the Eastern Kentucky schools, that are aggressively trying to prepare students for a technological world, and others in various parts of the United States that have fallen short.
Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Hazard-based Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, told the Herald-Leader that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributed $200,000 to upgrade technology in schools. The cooperative also received a $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top District Initiative in 2014, which is being used by 17 Eastern Kentucky school districts, Hawkins said.
Hager, 18, said in the documentary that most of the men in his family had been coal miners. His grandfather, Rick Mays, says in the film that he loved being a coal miner, but the mines are “going away slowly. I don’t think it will ever be the way that it was.”
“The younger generation are the ones that are wanting more opportunities,” Hager says in the film. “What I would want for my future is not just to get by, paycheck to paycheck, but to actually get a good job that sustains me and more.”
Hager said in an interview Monday that he wants to go to Eastern Kentucky University and study statistical computer science. He said Belfry has many technology classes, including one called digital literacy.
David Couch, an associate commissioner at the state Office of Education Technology, told the Herald-Leader that schools in Eastern Kentucky are not only among the best in Kentucky, “but in the nation in regards to access, equity and use of education technology in schools.”
The documentary shows a 2015 visit to Betsy Layne High School in Floyd County by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda. Betsy Layne’s principal at the time, Cassandra Akers, said in the film, “We don’t want to lose our kids. We want them to stay in our area. We see technology as that bridge to be able to keep them home.”
Hawkins said Monday that schools in the region are connected to high-speed fiber optics, but “not all of our homes in our communities have high-speed internet” access. Not having high-speed internet at home can be a problem for students, but there are efforts in Kentucky to change that.
“We focus on technology, but our focus has really been on investing in people and the improvement in teacher preparation,” Hawkins said. “If we can create hope, if we can let one student know that they can rise to the level that they want to go, that they can get the job that they want to have, then we have accomplished our work.”
With that focus on technology, Hager led a team of programmers in a statewide software competition.
“People hear our accents and they think we are hillbillies, but believe it or not, you can definitely teach coal miners to code,” Hager said in the documentary. “A lot of people in this area want more. We grew up living poor. We want to see what it’s like to have a chance to live more than that. I’d love for it to change to an area where people actually want to move into for jobs, as opposed to leave.”