Providing Free Wireless Hotspots Helps this District Close the Equity Gap

Originally posted in eschoolnews.

By Robert Dillon, Affton School District

The achievement gap. The literacy gap. The nutrition gap. The preschool gap. It seems like our education system talks and talks about the inequities that exist between students and schools that are well-funded, well-supported, and well-granted, and those that struggle to keep the lights on, pay their staff, and run the HVAC.

There’s another gap, a growing one, perhaps with less media buzz, that has made its way to the doors of our schools. It’s one we can no longer ignore. This is the chasm between the homes with and those without access to quality broadband.

It’s a complex and layered issue. In rural schools, the availability of internet access beyond school and home can be difficult to obtain, while students in urban areas often can poach access from libraries, open networks in the community, or nearby fast food restaurants. In both rural and urban settings, many students are obtaining their wi-fi signals using smartphones as hotspots at a rate that isn’t sustainable for their cellular plans. Others have a home network that is plagued with speed and consistency issues. In all of these situations, learning, especially at the pace and rate necessary for today’s student to succeed, is inhibited.

An innovative hotspot program 

Realizing the impact a stable broadband connection can have on students, Affton School District in St. Louis, where I work, has been working to address this issue for a while now. In Affton, more than 40 percent of students live with the effects of poverty, and many others slide in and out of this space throughout the school year. This hasn’t stopped us from marching forward with an innovative plan to provide all students with classrooms that are designed well, filled with great teachers, supported with the best instructional practices, and amplified with the essential technology tools for modern learning.

Part of this plan saw Affton bringing a one-to-one learning environment to its students in grades 6-12, and in doing so, we committed to these devices being accessible to students 24-hours a day. As a district we realized that providing technology access beyond the school day reaps so many additional benefits — students using technology to explore and pursue their passions, family access to online resources for learning and work related uses, and greater home-school communication — and that, likewise, the lack of access leaves too many students behind. Technology that is locked in carts from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. the next day, we reasoned, was a wasted opportunity. So we moved to create ubiquitous access to devices for all students.

To close this equity gap, we turned to Kajeet, which provides wireless hotspots and management services to connect students to the world beyond the hours of formal learning. This partnership has opened us up to become a part of an ongoing conversation about how to build the best services for kids and families.

At Affton, this service is available for all students, but we have found that less than 4 percent of our students are seeking support from the school in this area. This varied from survey data we collected prior to our program’s launch that showed about 12 percent of students are without reliable home wi-fi access. In some cases, we have found that students found a quality workaround solution, and in others, we realized that our survey had resulted in some false positives on the needs of our community. In order for our mission to be successful, we knew that it was essential that we use all of our communication tools available, especially those that had proven to be effective with our most disconnected families, to introduce and promote this wi-fi option. This meant counselor phone calls, personal conversations with students, and text messages and phone blasts to home and cellular phones.

It was essential that those in need of access know about the service and take advantage of service that we were providing. In addition, teachers and building leaders were asked to listen deeply and advocate for those in apparent need, so that we could truly make this opportunity an equitable offering in both philosophy and practice. Students can checkout devices from our help desk, and keep them for 2GBs of use. At that point, we asked students to bring the devices in for a checkup. These checkups served as a means to not only check on the devices, but have another adult in the building check in with the needs of the students. A number of great things emerged from these check-ins.

How the program makes a difference

One was the story of Gregory. He had checked out a hotspot in September at the very beginning of the program. Looking back, no one realized what impact it would make on his motivation and potentially his life path. Gregory was struggling with the speed and intensity of school because his life was absorbing all of his time and energy. Gregory wanted to do well in school. He wanted to be the first in his family to graduate high school and attend college. Gregory had dreams. Unfortunately, the last bell of the school day was the last chance that he had to truly devote to school.

Gregory had a job that helped to support his family from 3:30 p.m. to at least 9 p.m. every day, and when he arrived home, there was no access to the internet. He would often wake up early to work in the parking lot of his school until it opened. He was behind in school. He was behind in credits. He was losing grasp on his dreams. Gregory used his new access to perfection. He used time after work, weekends, and little moments of calm at work to get his learning back on track. This success alone sold the program to the school community and beyond.

Our program at Affton gives kids safe access during those essential learning hours beyond school in a way that they can count on. It provides equity for our students in a way that society rarely affords those that navigate poverty on a daily basis. By partnering with Kajeet and our community, we have been able to leverage new learning for our students and our families in a way that builds community capacity. This program has also pushed the district to look for other ways to remove barriers for families using technology tools and shifts in our culture and traditions.

Robert Dillon is Director of Technology and Innovation for Affton School District in St. Louis and the author of Leading Connected Classrooms.

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