Melinda Fiscus and Justin Morgan discuss how they worked together to fund hotspots in a small, rural district at ISTELive 24.

Jun 25 2024

ISTELive 24: How to Build Connectivity in Rural Communities

An Illinois school district turns to local business and state funding to bridge the digital divide.

Funding school technology continues to be a concern for many K–12 school leaders. And in Illinois, where there are many small, rural school districts that have minimal or nonexistent technology budgets, this need is even more pronounced.

In an ISTELive 24 session, Justin Morgan, technology director for Trico Community Unit School District 176,  and Melinda Fiscus, director of government affairs for the Learning Technology Center of Illinois, shared their multipronged approach for obtaining connectivity funding.

Located in southern Illinois, Trico Community School District 176 has faced several challenges. First, the district is located near a national forest, which prohibits building or drilling, making it difficult to install high-speed internet. Second, the 875-student district is in a high-poverty community in the middle of cornfields and coal mines. Third, the district doesn’t have much local industry. And the fourth issue is that the district is spread over a large area and serves students from six different towns.

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Additionally, for many years Morgan served as a one-person tech department, managing an annual technology budget of $85,000. He now has a technology aide.

Even so, Fiscus, who works for the state’s education service agency for technology, said that due to the enthusiastic support of Superintendent Larry Lovel, the district is “one of my less fortunate but more advanced districts. They were always thinking about the importance of educational technology.”

Laying the Foundation for Technology in Schools

Though the district's technology budget is small, Morgan said that it is still good for the area.

Still, “out of that budget, we have to maintain the website, student information system, disaster recovery backup, cybersecurity, district internet access and network equipment,” he noted.

WATCH: See how a Wi-Fi 6 upgrade helps students build technology skills.

Fiscus, who works with districts across the state, says that the Trico budget is not unusual. “Most districts in Illinois are operating on a similar budget or no budget,” she said. “For most schools, E-Rate is their technology budget.”

E-Rate is a federal program that can offset up to 90 percent of the cost of internet service and equipment for schools. Morgan used E-Rate funding to build the school’s internet infrastructure.

Prior to the pandemic, he planned ahead for a one-to-one device program and updated the school’s network. He repurposed old devices. He collaborated with teachers to address essential technology applications.

Justin Morgan
We saw that when we collaborated with small businesses, the community internet service providers, we would get more yeses than nos.”

Justin Morgan Technology Director, Trico Community Unit School District 176

Trial and Error with Connectivity Funding

Connectivity challenges hit home during the pandemic. Rural students who didn’t have internet at home faced very high fees to get very slow speeds.

“They didn't have a McDonald's or a Walmart or cafes to go to for a wireless connection,” Morgan said.

Fiscus said schools will often come to her for help with grants or other one-time sources of funding for school connectivity. She often points them to more sustainable sources of funding, such as Title 1 or E-Rate funding. However, these programs do not address home connectivity, and that’s the problem Trico and other rural communities struggle to solve.

Morgan sat down with a local ISP and asked to run internet to hotspots in the six different towns his district serves. He managed to get 5 out of the 6 towns to participate.

“It had great community support,” Morgan said. “It shows that in our small community, sometimes you just have to ask, and people are willing to help.”

Morgan admitted that even though the project was not hugely successful as students didn’t want to have to travel outside their homes to use the internet, it was still a win.

“It was an example of out-of-the-box thinking,” he said. “We saw that when we collaborated with small businesses, the community internet service providers, we would get more yeses than nos.”

DIVE DEEPER: Schools get creative in bringing the internet to students’ homes.

State Grants to the Rescue

When support from the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program and Emergency Connectivity Fund became available, Morgan signed the district up to get hotspots for students, thinking that the program would be free. However, IT leaders soon discovered that there was a small management fee that was not refundable and would take a big chunk out of the budget.

Fiscus’s team then connected the district with a state digital equity grant, which allowed it to get hotspots to students at no charge.

Morgan and Fiscus are now lobbying to get E-Rate funding for hotspots for home connectivity in rural districts. 

To stay up to date on everything at this year’s ISTE conference, bookmark this page and follow along on the social platform X at @EdTech_K12 or with the hashtag #ISTELive.

Photography by Taashi Rowe

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