Laptops are the new pencils and paper.
That is why a local philanthropist is raising funds to provide equity, technology and opportunity to students of Federal Way Public Schools.
The fundraiser, created by former Major League Baseball player Gerald Smiley, hopes to raise $3 million to purchase 5,000 laptops for Federal Way students. Smiley, also the founder and CEO of the host website Chip-In, said 100% of the proceeds will go directly to FWPS — no percentage cuts are taken out, as done with other fundraising websites, he said.
Born and raised in the Seattle area, Smiley attended Rainier Beach High School before he was drafted to the Texas Rangers in 2001. He played professionally for five years, and later went on to become a college coach. He returned to Seattle in 2016 and was tasked with rejuvenating the Rainier Beach baseball program.
He used GoFundMe for a fundraiser, but “saw a lot of loopholes in the system and how much they took from us.”
In March 2018, Smiley said he woke up from a dream with a vision to create his own software that would remove the barriers of making funds and capital available to all communities. Thus, Chip-in was born.
“I’m a big advocate when it comes to community,” said Smiley, who is also an organizer for the Local 242 labor union and a board commissioner for the Seattle Housing Authority.
Smiley chose Federal Way because of his close personal and professional ties to the district, but also because of the inequality of resources for families being pushed south from Seattle, he said.
“You see a lot of the people getting pushed to South King County, yet no resources being able to follow them, the money isn’t coming with them,” he said, highlighting the help and resources given to Seattle-area schools by corporate powerhouses.
In April, Amazon donated 8,200 laptops to Seattle Public Schools families “to help all students within the state’s largest school district gain access to a device so they can continue their education at home,” according to the company.
After schools across Washington were forced to offer remote learning options due to an order from Gov. Jay Inlsee in response to the coronavirus pandemic, FWPS conducted a survey to discover the at-home technological needs of their 23,000-plus student population.
The survey, offered in late March, found that about 5,000 students do not have access to a personal laptop at home, or do not have access to a WiFi hotspot at home.
As plans for the upcoming school year have yet to be announced, many states are preparing for hybrid or remote learning to begin in September. With the impacts of the pandemic changing traditional school routines, the need for increased technology access for students is critical.
“With students at home and uncertainty of how the following school year will play out, we are calling on all our brothers and sisters across the country,” the Chip-in page says.
In order for students to continue their education at home via online learning, Chip-In is asking people to chip-in one hour of your pay, or your state minimum wage, to help meet the goal of $3 million. Washington state’s minimum wage is $13.50 as of 2020.
Each contribution to the FWPS laptop fundraiser is also a tax-deductible donation for FWPS EIN: 91-6001624.
Local businesses have the opportunity to support the youth of Federal Way, just as many of their families supported the local businesses when COVID-19 hardships struck, Smiley said.
Donations can be seen as a way to say “thank you” to these students, he said, or as an investment into the futures of youth in Federal Way.
As the population of Federal Way is nearing 100,000, Smiley said that if even 50,000 people donated the amount of Washington’s minimum wage, the fundraiser could have $675,000.
“We need to understand the notion of technology as a basic education right. Just as a pencil and paper were, we need to think about laptops in the same way,” said Dr. Tammy Campbell, superintendent of FWPS.
Federal Way Public Schools, a notably under-funded district, does have an annual $4 million technology levy, which is designed “for three-to-one at best,” Campbell said. “It was just never built for COVID-19.”
In the context of K-12 education, one-to-one computing is a school’s ability to allow a student to use an electronic device to access the internet, digital course materials and digital textbooks. In the age of the pandemic, this now includes remote learning.
What does 3:1 mean in terms of access for students?
“At any given moment, we don’t have enough laptops for students, or for teachers to have their own, but it doesn’t mean [the students] don’t have access to them when they need to,” Campbell said. The district is able to provide computer and laptop access to all students by scheduling times for use and shuffling the resources between classrooms, but with students possibly at home in the fall, resources are stretched thin, she said.
In April, the district provided loaner laptops and WiFi hotspot access to students in need, while prioritizing high school seniors nearing graduation.
The district plans to purchase the laptops no matter what, Campbell said, which would cause a $3 million strain on a $4 million levy. The assistance of a fundraiser allows the district to use those technology levy dollars for other student benefits.
“We’re going to do whatever it takes,” she said. “What is our community willing to commit to ensure our students have the resources to be ready for their future?”
Missed opportunities due to lack of access look like the inability to apply for college, inability to contact coaches for sports scholarship chances, or falling severely behind in coursework.
“He’s hoping to close a significant gap for us,” Campbell said of Smiley. “He’s saying ‘why not Federal Way?’”
The bottom line is that all kids need a laptop.
“I just feel like if everyone chipped in, in solidarity as a community, we can get behind these men and women who deserve an opportunity in life … and allow them to continue to have access to more opportunities, not just during this pandemic,” Smiley said.
So far, the fundraiser has collected $4,700 of the $3 million goal thanks to 74 contributors. The fundraiser is open until July 22.
“Even a small act of generosity can make a dent,” Smiley said.
To donate or for more information, visit the Chip-in website at pilot.chip-in.co/pot/1.