Zendaya is one of the hottest rising talents in Hollywood. Between starring in the Spider-Man franchise, curating the second collection of her clothing line, and appearing in a new Bruno Mars video, the 21-year-old didn’t waste a moment this summer.
But if Zendaya never hit it big in Hollywood, she’s pretty sure she’d be a teacher. Growing up in Oakland, California, Zendaya watched both of her parents teach in classrooms, and admired their commitment to providing children with a quality education.
“The difference in resources and education is night and day.”
She also noticed something else: Her father, who worked in a private school, had far more resources than her mother, who taught in a public classroom less than a mile away.
“The difference in resources and education is night and day,” says Zendaya, who attended her father’s school. “And it was never fair to me that because of your area code and amount of income your parents make, that determines your level of education.”
That injustice is why Zendaya decided to lend her name and voice to the Verizon Foundation’s “#weneedmore” campaign, which provides free technology, access, and learning opportunities to children in underserved schools and communities across the country. The new film Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America, which airs Sept. 26 on National Geographic Channel, is part of the initiative.
The movie criss-crosses the country to explore which students have access to 21st century technologies in their classrooms, and the results are more than disheartening. High schools in wealthy neighborhoods frequently have broadband wireless access and the latest digital technology. Students in those schools may get opportunities to write code and build robots — skills that make them much more competitive for college admissions and beyond.
In low-income communities, however, schools often fight just to get a working internet connection and the hardware to use it. If they do have tablets or laptops, it’s not always guaranteed teachers will know how to use the devices. This is a nationwide problem: 11.6 million students lack the minimum bandwidth for digital learning, according to research.
Numbers like these outrage Zendaya. She watched the film with her mother, and the two discussed her own experiences of working in a school without adequate tech resources. “My mom could’ve easily been in this film,” she says.
In the film, teachers and administrators have to improvise in order to provide some form of digital technology to their students. They move slowly through lessons so that every student’s tablet can catch up. They share devices with other classrooms, which limits how much time can be spent on any given task.
Upon learning that many students don’t have Wi-Fi at home, one administrator outfits school buses with routers and parks them in central locations so students can get online and complete their assignments.
Fixing this problem means addressing the fundamental inequity built into the way school districts are funded. Since they draw money from local property taxes, a school district in a wealthy area will have far more resources than a school district in a low-income neighborhood. Additional federal funding doesn’t make up for this disparity.
“That is the huge problem,” says Zendaya. “Our school systems are set up for…these children to fail.” She hopes that by drawing more attention to classroom disparities, it’ll create more momentum for finding equitable solutions.
What she really wants is for all children — not just the privileged — to have access to life-changing technology in their classroom.
“I’m pro young people following their dreams and doing what makes them happy,” she says. “The point is to allow every child the equal ability to choose what their path is.”