In Vista, Calif., Unified School District, 30 miles north of San Diego, Superintendent Devin Vodicka is focusing on internet access for the 25,000 students in his diverse community. Two-thirds of Vista’s students are from low-income families, some of them migrant families and others are highly mobile.
On the opposite side of the country, Superintendent Pam Moran of Albemarle County School District in Charlottesville, Va., wrestles with the same issues of connectivity for a district that covers 765 square miles.
Both school districts believe they have a handle on providing students with a personal technology device – laptops, phones and iPads. The bigger challenge now is to provide students with broadband access at home. This has come to be referred to as “the homework gap” because students without access are at a disadvantage when it comes to completing assignments or applying for college.
During a Thursday Thought Leader session at the AASA conference,, Moran and Vodicka shared details of their journey toward digital equity when it comes to access, as well as advice and encouragement.
A breakthrough for Vodicka came when two middle schools in his district were chosen to participate in the Verizon – Innovative Learning program (www.digitalpromise.org). It provides every student with an iPad outfitted with internet connectivity.
Suddenly it was a level playing field, according to Vodicka. Equitable access had a profound and swift effect within the classroom and more generally on student’s sense of feeling connected to school. Surveys indicated those low-income students who had lacked access to the internet at home came to school feeling apprehensive.
“They felt their teachers were disappointed in them, and they felt disconnected with their peers,” he said. “Once they had access, there was no anxiety. We saw behavioral issues fell dramatically.”
But the journey to improve digital access has not been a smooth upward line. One stumbling block came when they tried to improve access to the highly mobile students. Since cost was an issue, the district arranged for families to get internet for only $9.95 per month.
“The trouble was, as soon as we got students set up at home, they would move,” Vodicka said. “It was just constant and we couldn’t keep up.” The district eventually embraced a checkout system using Kajeet hot spots. At one point, Sprint donated My-Fi cards. “Just be industrious and keep looking for connections,” he advised.
In Albemarle County School District, some 30 miles from Charlottesville, Moran has made broadband access for all 14,000 students a priority. The issue is one of equity.
To inform decisions, the district surveyed students and parents about what kind of devices they use and what kind of WiFi they have. They learned some students still used dial-up. That information has been critical to planning.
The district’s systemic solution is one that benefits the community and students. By 2019, Moran reports the district will have finished the buildout “for democratization of access to broadband. Solutions are not a one-size-fits-all. Initially, the district repurposed its educational broadband spectrum” for district and community Wi-Fi. She recommends other superintendents consider this approach.
“We put in different solutions for high-density areas and low-density areas,” Moran said. They have built cell towers on school property, put in outdoor routers in remote areas and relied on wireless hubs.
Both superintendents recommend starting small. Vista started with small, targeted populations and validated their success before expanding it. First they worked with students who were ill and did the Home-Hospital connection. Then Vista worked on connecting the homeless population.
“Don’t get discouraged,” Vodicka said. “Do what you can. It will make a huge difference to students.”
The Consortium for School Networking has resources that can get superintendents started. Visit www.cosn.org/digital-equity to access the digital equity action kit and more.
(By Liz Griffin, reporter for Conference Daily Online.)