BROOKSVILLE — In recent years, schools across the state have made major strides toward digital-based instruction. But what about students who don’t have access to the internet? Thanks to an initiative by Sprint telecommunications company, that’s no longer a problem in Hernando County. Since the start of the school year, nearly 600 high school students have received a free smartphone, complete with a data plan, that they can use through graduation. The nationwide Sprint 1 Million Project began this year, according to Lynne Pincek, the company’s vice president of business and public sector for Florida, is an effort to "close the digital divide." Over the next five years, up to 1,700 phones per year will be made available to Hernando students in need. "We know there is potential everywhere, but opportunity is not," she said, "so we are leveling the playing field." According to statistics provided by the company, 70 percent of teachers in the United States assign online homework, but about 5 million families with school-aged children don’t have internet access. Nearly 50 percent of students interviewed by the company reported earning a lower grade because they couldn’t complete their work. Tara Ferlita, a math teacher at Nature Coast Technical High School, says she saw the need first hand when assigning internet-based work. In class, students without a device would have to pair up with someone who did, and those without home internet access would have to come into her classroom before or after school to do their homework. "It sounds trivial, but not having a cell phone these days is a big deal," she said. "This project makes it so that those students have the ability to do their work and can compete with their peers and be successful." Pincek said Hernando is one of 118 districts in 32 states that opted to participate and qualified for the project. In Florida alone this year, 20,000 devices, each with 3GB of high-speed data and unlimited voice and text per month, were up for grabs. By the end of program, 1 million devices will have been distributed across the country. While the phones and data plans are paid for by Sprint, school districts have been tasked with identifying students in need and getting the devices to them at activation events held at each high school. "To see the light-up that these kids had on their faces was amazing," Ferlita said, recalling seeing one student cry when his phone was activated. "You can just tell they are proud ... and feel equal to their peers simply because they have a cellphone." During an activation event held in Orange County, Pincek said, she met one student who waited every night until 9 p.m. when her classmate got home to go over and use the internet to do homework. Others she talked to said they would have to coordinate rides or stay late after school to keep up with course work. "Our kids were going to extreme measures just to be at parity with others," she said, adding that she hopes the devices will encourage students to look into applying for college, too. John Morris, secondary math specialist for the district who has headed up the organizing of the program in Hernando called the program "a way for these students to feel like normal high school kids." In his mind, the best part of the program is that there is only one requirement for a student to claim a phone: a parent permission slip. "If a kid starts telling me a sob story, I stop them. It’s not because I don’t want to hear it, but because they don’t have to tell me that to qualify," Morris said. "It’s not a rigorous thing ... All they have to do is ask." Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.