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Teaching

District Extends Wi-Fi to Students in Public Housing

By Michelle R. Davis — April 13, 2015 9 min read
Fatuma Shoka, a 9th grader at Auburn Mountainview High School, uses the wireless Internet at the Birch Creek Community Center. The center, through a program supported by the Kent, Wash., school district, offers a kiosk emitting free Wi-Fi so students can go online to complete their school assignments.

Near the Ping-Pong and foosball tables, just steps from the gymnasium, where the sounds of bouncing basketballs echo down the hall, a strange contraption sits against the west wall of the Birch Creek Youth Center.

It looks like a cross between an old-school video-arcade console and a modern-day ATM—but it’s actually a kiosk placed in the recreation hub by the Kent school district.

The kiosk emits free Wi-Fi in a 75-foot radius and features a 42-inch LED screen up top to display the latest district news. For many students who live in nearby public housing and go to school in the surrounding 27,400-student school system, the kiosk acts as a bridge between the digital connectivity they have through laptops and other devices at school and the lack of Internet access they cope with at home.

The Kent district has placed nine kiosks across the community, in three community centers and six district schools, and has coordinated with local businesses and organizations to establish a network of school-sponsored Wi-Fi hotspots. The district has used donations and partnerships to help defray some of the costs associated with the $6,500 kiosks.

The idea is to make it easier for students, particularly those living in poverty, to access the Web away from school for homework and research after school hours. It’s a goal shared by numerous school systems around the country, which have taken myriad approaches to boosting connectivity outside the classroom.

In addition to beaming free Wi-Fi, the Kent kiosks feature multiple languages for interaction and allow parents who don’t have their own computers to log onto the district’s student information system, Skyward Family Access. The system provides them with a link to student grades, assignments, and the ability to communicate with teachers and other school officials.

In Kent, located just south of Seattle, the kiosks are also part of a broader effort to use technology to build stronger ties with students and parents, many of whom live in poverty and lack English language skills, said Thuan Nguyen, the chief information and digital strategy officer for the school system.

“More technology than ever is embedded in the instructional process,” Mr. Nguyen said. “Making sure students have connectivity is more critical than ever.”

See Also: Creating an Out-of-School Wireless Community

As K-12 districts become increasingly reliant on lessons that require technology, district leaders and policymakers have become increasingly concerned about many students’ inability to get online outside the classroom.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, seven out of 10 teachers assign homework that requires high-speed Internet access, yet in some communities, only 1 in 3 students can access the Web at home.

More discouragingly, few districts appear to be making strides toward closing those gaps. A survey released last year by the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking found that 82 percent of school systems do not provide any off-campus broadband services to students. Only 10 percent of districts had identified community or business Wi-Fi hotspots for students, and an equally low number reported partnerships with Internet providers for low-cost home access.

While many advocates of increasing students’ Internet access applaud initiatives like those underway in Kent, they also see limits to those programs’ reach. Individual district efforts tend to address the lack of connectivity in relatively limited ways, said Evan C. Marwell, the CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that tries to improve Web infrastructure in schools.

“To solve this problem, we’re going to have to do things at scale,” Mr. Marwell said.

Homework Goes Online

On a recent March day, Deepeka Taya, a senior at Kentlake High School, was catching up on her homework using her school-issued laptop and the free Wi-Fi provided by the district kiosk at the Birch Creek Youth Center.

During her first two years of high school, the teenager had no Internet access in her home, located in the King County Housing Authority, so she spent a lot of time going online at the community center. Now, she said, her family has a home connection, but it’s slow, so she’s often drawn to the Wi-Fi kiosk, where connectivity comes at a much faster clip.

Ms. Taya’s parents have also used the kiosk to access the district’s Skyward program to track her academic progress, she said.

“Most of our assignments are online,” she said. “If I didn’t have the Internet after school, or had problems getting it, it would be hard.”

The Kent district is just one of many K-12 systems that have taken creative steps aimed at closing the connectivity gap.

The Coachella Valley district in California, which has equipped school buses with Wi-Fi, parks one of those vehicles in a trailer park at night to provide Internet to students after hours. The Albemarle, Va., district is building its own broadband network with the goal of connecting directly to students’ homes in rural areas. Other districts allow students to check out hotspots from school libraries.

Many districts work closely with Internet providers. Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, for example, offers online access to qualifying families in its service area for $9.95 per month. Since 2011, Comcast says it has connected 350,000 families through the program in 39 states and the District of Columbia.

Mapping Out Connectivity

The Kent, Wash., school system has created kiosks that emit free Wi-Fi and allow easy connections to the district student-information system. The kiosks are placed in local schools and youth centers.

27BL ma  chart preview Enlarge

As Kent expanded its use of technology over time, officials became determined to move aggressively to help students and families make use of new digital resources. Many students in the district come from poor backgrounds: More than half qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

When the district launched a 1-to-1 student-to-device program districtwide during the 2008-09 school year, 30 percent of students didn’t have access to reliable broadband. Since then, that number has fallen to about 4 percent, Mr. Nguyen said. Today, the district’s 1-to-1 program extends across grades 7-12, and students are allowed to take their devices home.

The Kent district developed the Student Technology Access & Resources, or STAR, program to address some connectivity issues, providing refurbished laptops to qualifying families and mapping out district Wi-Fi hotspots along with those offered by local organizations and businesses. Initially, many students’ only options for finding Internet access amounted to heading out to a government building, a coffee shop, or a business that offered connectivity, said Mr. Nguyen. He saw those as stop-gap options.

“It’s not realistic to expect them to walk miles and miles to a library, and no Starbucks is going to let students hang out there for hours without buying something,” he said. “It’s not a real, viable option for everyday and extended use.”

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing with the kiosks. So far, there are only nine of them, with three placed in the community. Sometimes, the kiosks get unplugged by cleaning crews, and the machines have difficulty rebooting, leaving the Wi-Fi down for some period of time.

But in other respects, the placement of the kiosks is having the desired effect, Mr. Nguyen said. Data collected from the stations show both district-owned and nondistrict devices connecting on a regular basis.

The Kent district has made other efforts to improve online access across the community. It’s a patchwork quilt that gives students a variety of options for getting on the Web.

The district created a shortcut to an online map on student devices highlighting nearby Wi-Fi options. It partnered with nearby businesses to permit student Wi-Fi use at a Safeway with a cafeteria, the Golden Steer restaurant’s catering area, and in local churches. The system also tried a pilot program to pay for students’ home Internet connections, but it didn’t have the desired impact, Mr. Nguyen said.

Cost Barriers

Boosting students’ access to reliable, high-speed Internet service has been a priority among federal policymakers. Late last year, the FCC approved a broad swath of changes to the federal E-rate program, which supports Web connectivity in schools, including an annual boost of $1.5 billion in the program’s budget.

But those changes were not focused on expanding home Internet access. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is urging the federal agency to account for what she describes as the “homework gap” through revisions to the federal Lifeline program. Ms. Rosenworcel has proposed recasting the Lifeline program, created in 1985 to provide discounts on phone service to low-income customers, to give recipients flexibility to choose between phone service and home broadband access.

“We should take a hard look at that program and ask how we can evolve it so it’s better suited for broadband,” Ms. Rosenworcel said. Federal officials need to focus on “how we can get more households connected,” she added, “especially those with school-age children.”

For individual districts trying to increase out-of-school connectivity, one of the most obvious barriers is the high price tag, said Marie Bjerede, the project director for the Consortium for School Networking’s Smart Education Networks by Design initiative, which supports districts’ attempts to expand broadband.

With many K-12 efforts to bring Wi-Fi into home communities, the cost is often “so prohibitive, it hasn’t been a conversation that has really hit the mainstream,” she said.

In the Kent district, for example, much of its investment in digital technology has come from a series of technology bond measures approved by the community, Mr. Nguyen said. The district received a $10,000 donation from wireless network company Meraki toward the kiosk project, and Absolute Software paid for one as well. Some organizations and partners, like the King County Housing Authority, pay for the Internet connection themselves, Mr. Nguyen said.

What’s more, the placement of kiosks in community centers run by the King County Housing Authority has helped cement the relationship between its education programs and the school district, said Ted Dezember. He manages the housing authority’s education initiatives, which include preschool and after-school programs.

“The kiosks are a physical presence of the school district inside the building,” Mr. Dezember said. “It symbolizes a true partnership.”

For educators like Cedar Heights Middle School Principal Heidi Maurer, maintaining that bond is critical.

Many of her students live in public housing and spend hours at the Birch Creek Youth Center. Some of her teachers provide weekly tutoring at the center and conduct outreach with parents to introduce them to the Wi-Fi systems and the Skyward Family Access system.

“Our kids need to have access to the Internet and the tools associated with the Internet to function,” Ms. Maurer said. “The kiosks help families access student information so they feel a part of what’s going on.”

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2015 edition of Education Week as District Establishes Wi-Fi in Local Community

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