Special Report
Infrastructure

Businesses Build Online Wi-Fi Network in Ga. School District

By Sean Cavanagh — April 13, 2015 3 min read

Customers who roll into the Donut Connection in Cumming, Ga., most mornings tend to know what they want. There’s no denying the appeal of the chocolate-frosted pastry with sprinkles. Or the lure of the bacon, egg, and cheese bagel, chased down with a frozen cappuccino.

But for the past few years, one particular class of clients—teenagers from nearby schools—have been settling into the shop’s tables at different times of the day, drawn by something that’s not on the official menu: free Wi-Fi.

The donut shop is one of about 50 businesses and facilities around the 43,000-student Forsyth County school system that have agreed to have their names and locations listed as part of the “Free Wi-Fi Zone,” a network of places that offer Internet connectivity for students to tap into.

The listed hotspots include public libraries, sub shops, sit-down restaurants, and even dentists’ offices. Businesses agree to have their locations put on an online interactive map, and they can display a “free Wi-Fi” sticker in their windows, as both a badge of participation and a signal to students that connectivity is available.

The Forsyth County Wi-Fi program, created two years ago, is one of a scattered number of efforts by districts around the country aimed at building informal networks of Wi-Fi across entire communities, as a way to help students who lack online connectivity at home.

Kirk A. McConnell, the owner of the Donut Connection, said the Wi-Fi has been good for his bottom line—increasing business by an estimated 5 percent to 10 percent. He also said it gives him the chance to support local schools, several of which are located within a few miles of his shop.

And because Mr. McConnell’s wife is a high school English teacher in the school system, he’s seen how ingrained online learning has become in lessons.

“It’s something that the students can count on,” he said of the free Wi-Fi. “I know firsthand how much teaching has changed because of the Internet.”

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Workers at the Donut Connection arrive at 3 a.m. to begin preparing pastries for the day. Later in the morning, before the school day starts, Mr. McConnell sees clusters of students busily typing away on laptops, doing homework. When students show up after school, their activity tends to be a mix of work and play—meaning a lot of social media, based on the owner’s observations.

Nighttime Demand

The Forsyth district, north of Atlanta, made the integration of technology into lessons a priority. It put in place a “bring-your-own-technology” initiative that allows students to use their own computing devices at school, said Jennifer Caracciolo, the district’s director of communications.

It also set up a task force to find ways to promote digital equity, and the idea for the Wi-Fi zone grew out of that initiative. Like some other districts, Forsyth also makes mobile Wi-Fi hotspots available to students on loan.

Demand for after-hours connectivity among students is high and growing, Ms. Caracciolo noted. Data the district collects through its learning-management system show a spike in online usage between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.

The Wi-Fi zone is in many ways still in its experimental phase, and it’s far from perfect. The district can’t control the quality of the Wi-Fi connections offered by individual businesses, Ms. Caracciolo pointed out. And businesses aren’t required to filter content to keep students focused on schoolwork, as the district’s online systems do, she said. (The district warns parents of those security limits on its website.)

And while the district has spread word of the Wi-Fi zone through local business associations, the online map has a lot of dead zones. The district is planning more aggressive outreach to sign up more businesses, Ms. Caracciolo said.

As it now stands, “if you have food at [a Wi-Fi] location,” the district spokeswoman said, “you’re likely to have more students there.”

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 Businesses Sign Up To Give Students Online Access After School Hours

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