When the Palm Beach County schools in Florida made the unprecedented switch to remote learning a year ago, an urgent problem came to the surface: Many thousands of their K-12 students lacked an Internet connection at home.
The district, which covers a 2,300-square-mile area, approached the problem by combining technological capabilities with longstanding relationships and a shared enthusiasm for addressing equity gaps. The district’s tech team used geographic information system (GIS) mapping to guide its planning for the project, and then partnered with mayors and local government officials and workers to carry out the massive broadband expansion effort which has been underway for months. The county is spending $16 million from last year’s allotment of CARES Act stimulus funds to fuel the effort, which aims to get 50,000 students connected at home by this May.
Education Week spoke to Donna Goldstein, who has served as the district’s IT solutions manager for nearly two decades, about the project’s progress and the lessons other districts could take from it.
The following conversation combines responses from phone interviews conducted in late October and early February. It has been edited for length and clarity.
How did the idea for this project come about?
The digital divide is something that everybody in education has been dealing with for quite some time. Having to quickly turn on a dime and go to distance learning just exacerbated the situation.
Last March, our chief of performance asked me to get some data that we could use to identify different aspects of distance learning, like how many kids were logging in to the portal to access the curriculum. We sent out a survey asking parents if they had internet access [at home]. We got a response from a number of folks, and we know that’s only a percentage of folks that don’t have the internet.
How did GIS software help you get started?
The benefit of the GIS software is the robust ability to do spatial analysis with the demographic data. A team of folks from the school district worked very closely with the county IT and GIS folks.
I identified all of the students that are on free and reduced-price meals, which happens to be a very high percentage in Palm Beach County. You wouldn’t think so. You think of it as a very wealthy area. That’s just the island of Palm Beach. There are a lot of poverty pockets here. Palm Beach County has a very large urban corridor, then there’s sugar cane fields, then in the west there’s three cities on the lower spectrum of the economic range.
I created what’s called a point density map to identify concentrations of where students on free and reduced-price meals lived. That’s the base layer. On top of that, I brought in all kinds of other data. I looked at where the county has revitalization programs going on, which also identifies some areas that also might be blighted.
If we didn’t have this software and we weren’t able to use the spatial capabilities to be able to analyze this data, we would be nowhere near where we are in the process. If all we had was tabular data, I can’t even determine how far back we would be. We would have probably lost the year. The ability to take the demographics and the data that you have and identify it using spatial tools to where these areas are geographically allow you to target those areas and implement your plan.
What advice would you give other districts that want to pull off a similar initiative?
I worked at the county for 12 years, I’ve been in the school district almost 20. I still meet with the GIS folks at the county every month. We have very strong relationships. For me, relationships really matter. People aren’t just interested in this project, they’re passionate about it. It’s the reason why we all work for the government, to benefit our communities.
What were the biggest challenges you faced?
There’s always miscellaneous issues with data that you have to normalize or try to scrub it. From the implementation perspective, I’d say being able to get the permits to put the utility poles in. We have one issue where we have to build infrastructure on an easement or a right of way, so we have to contact the HOA [homeowners’ association] to get permission to do that.
We had some issues out in the Glades region where it was difficult to lay the fiber where we have some canals. With some of the homeowner associations, there was some resistance to putting poles up on people’s property. They’ve been doing a lot of community outreach in that respect to let people know what’s going on, so you’re not waking up and looking out your door and seeing somebody digging a hole. When we did come across issues where there was resistance to having a pole put on a particular property, the county looked at moving the pole somewhere else.
Right now, we’ve got an issue with West Palm Beach because West Palm Beach has an actual policy which doesn’t allow wooden poles. We’re working with the city to see if they can have some type of waiver to amend that policy. I’m sure that we’ll find a resolution to this.
Where does the project stand now?
They’ve got most of the Glades—13,000 residents there—set up with the poles and all of the equipment. We’re getting ready to do a pilot over there. Poles have been placed in a number of cities. We should be ready for families getting connected. One of the nonprofits that we’ve been working with hired a director to coordinate and oversee some of the communication with the families. They’re going to hire navigators to go into the homes and help families get set up.
What comes next?
We’re still using the GIS analysis. Whenever we go do the presentation, I do the GIS analysis for that particular city so I can make a map to show all these households that would be affected. We have a dashboard using the ArcGIS software, web-based tool; as the poles are going from proposed to being placed, it’s shifting the alignment of things as we go along. That is kept up to date. All of the stakeholders that are involved have access to that website dashboard. We’re basically using it as a systems tool so we can keep track of what’s going on where in what city.
It isn’t just the cities. We’re also going to be putting some of these poles and mesh systems in the unincorporated county. The dark red and red counties are the primary focus, but the ultimate goal is to be able to cover the orange areas. That’s probably about over 80 percent of all of the students. As we move along in the phases, we move out from the most-condensed areas out to where it’s a little less condensed.
What will be the long-term impact of this project?
From my perspective, as an educator, the biggest benefit of this project is closing the digital divide in this county, or at least attempting to. It can change a person’s whole life. It’s an issue we have been grappling with for decades. If we have an opportunity to start closing that gap, that’s huge.
Right now, it’s critical because of the situation that we’re all in. Even when we have kids back in the classroom full-time, for a student to be able to have access to the internet enhances their ability to learn on many levels. Being able to get to some of the applications that we have at the district for curriculum to use for research, to learn about things that they’re interested in, rather than just trying to look up stuff on your phone. Providing students with the tools that they need is the first step in being able to at least give them a better chance at increasing their academic standing.
For the families, they can do telemedicine, they can look for jobs, they can take online classes, they can do all kinds of things that they can’t do now. It’s not like we’re implementing this and then when students go back to school full-time it gets taken away. It becomes something that is now part of their household.