Apr 01 2014

Bridging the Divide: Districts Provide Home Internet Access

Tablets and cellular connectivity can level the playing field for disadvantaged students.

Schools can strive to furnish students with computing devices and online education tools, but the purpose is defeated if students don't have high-speed Internet access in their homes.

The Central Unified School District in Fresno, Calif., is taking a novel approach to providing its 15,500 students with bandwidth. According to Director of Technology Services Luke Draper, the 21-school district plans to equip all students with ASUS tablets in the next school year and has struck a deal with a cellular provider to provide for 4G mobile broadband access.

E-Rate funding will pay for 80 percent of the Internet access costs; the remaining 20 percent will be covered in equal parts by the California Teleconnect Fund (a program of the California Public Utilities Commission) and by the district itself, at a monthly cost of about $3 per student.

"All the stars kind of aligned for us to do this: inexpensive tablets, the funding to reduce the cost of the data plans and providers willing to work with organizations like ourselves," Draper says.

Roughly 40 percent of CUSD's students don't have Internet access in their homes, adds Superintendent Mike Berg. Many are from low-income families, and others live in rural neighborhoods where broadband isn't available.

The tablets and Internet access will go a long way in evening out the playing field for the community's disadvantaged youth, Berg says. "We are bridging that digital divide by putting a device in everyone's hands and making sure they can leverage it to learn."

To comply with the Children's Internet Protection Act, the district's web filter vendor, Lightspeed Systems, is building software into the tablet's operating system that will ensure that all web traffic is filtered through the district. That, Draper says, will prevent students from accessing inappropriate materials.

In Colorado, meanwhile, the Boulder Valley School District has launched a pilot with the city's housing authority to provide free Internet access to students who live in low-income housing. Building Housing Partners (BHP) built a wireless network that connects to the district's fiber network, providing students with filtered Internet access in one low-income housing community, says Andrew Moore, BVSD's CIO.

The pilot launched this spring, and if it's successful, BVSD and BHP will extend the service and provide free Wi-Fi access to students who live in other low-income housing developments in the community, Moore says. "Learning environments need to be 24/7," he explains. "Our students can't go home and not have access."

To learn more about BVSD and other school districts' unique approaches to blended learning, read the feature story "How Technology Enables Blended Learning."