TOPICS > Education > Digital Divide

Wi-Fi on wheels leaves no child offline

March 7, 2016 at 8:06 PM EDT
The digital divide and lack of reliable Internet access at home can put low-income and rural students at a real disadvantage. So when superintendent Darryl Adams took over one of the poorest school districts in the nation, he made it a top priority to help his students get online 24/7. Special correspondent David Nazar of PBS SoCal reports with PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Tonight: an innovative solution to bridging the digital divide for students.

Too frequently, kids and their parents in rural low-income communities don’t have access to the Internet and high-quality learning technologies. But, in California, a unique project is providing free home access to the Web in one of the nation’s poorest districts.

Much of the footage for this story was shot by teenagers who are part of our Student Reporting Labs network, in collaboration with PBS SoCal in Southern California.

The correspondent is David Nazar.

DAVID NAZAR: Thirty minutes west of the wealthy suburbs of Palm Springs is a desert oasis best known its annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

But behind the parties and concerts stretches a vast and isolated landscape, home to the second poorest school district in the country, where most families live below the poverty line and struggle just to pay the rent.

DARRYL ADAMS, Superintendent, Coachella Valley Unified School District: We have some of the poorest of the poor in our country, very economically challenged, and 100 percent of our students are on free and reduced lunch. Some of them living at trailer home parks that some have been condemned recently, or some in railroad, abandoned railroad cars. It’s just unbelievable, some of the challenges they face.

DAVID NAZAR: Coachella Valley Unified School District Superintendent Darryl Adams believes the right use of technology is critical for the families in this area, like Norma Olivas and her daughter, Anisa Perez.

NORMA OLIVAS, Anisa’s Mother: I do see students sometimes struggling, and, right now, sometimes, some of the kids struggling to get school, to do certain things. And I wouldn’t want my daughter to go through any that. I wouldn’t want her to be a dropout.

DAVID NAZAR: When Adams took the job in 2011, the graduation rate was 70 percent, according to the district. One of his key initiatives was to get every student an iPad and Wi-Fi service, but he knew it would be challenge.

DARRYL ADAMS: We have 1,250 square miles to cover, larger than the state of Rhode Island. So, when we out there were spots in every which way, students weren’t connected, we said, well, how can we get them connected?

And so one of the ways, we said, look, we got 100 buses. Let’s put Wi-Fi routers on those buses. And let’s park them where the need is.

DAVID NAZAR: Finding the funding for this fleet of buses was no easy tasks. Nevertheless, in 2012, the community voted for and passed Measure X, a nearly $45 million school bond to fund the Mobile Learning Initiative over 10 years. They called the program Wi-Fi on Wheels.

ANISA PEREZ, Student, Desert Mirage High School: In the bus, it’s kind of cool that we have Internet, because when the project is due the next day, we can actually spend time to do it.

DAVID NAZAR: Completing assignments was difficult for Anisa before getting her iPad and Wi-Fi service at home.

NORMA OLIVAS: We would have to travel actually to go in, go to the library, get the books she needed to look up the information and go home. I don’t make a lot of money, but I will do whatever it takes to make sure she does get a better education.

DAVID NAZAR: Adams is doing whatever he can to make sure that the 20,000 students in his schools, 98 percent Hispanic and about 10 percent undocumented, develop the skills they need to graduate.

DARRYL ADAMS: So we realized that we had to provide this to our students in order for them to compete in the 21st century.

DAVID NAZAR: Installing solar panels on rooftops of the school buses to power the state-of-the-art Wi-Fi routers was a solution proposed by Adams.

DARRYL ADAMS: Being a musician by trade — I was a music teacher from L.A. Unified when I started out 30 years ago — and, as a musician, you’re always creating and thinking of different ways to do things or to play things or to hear things.

And so I brought that to my career in education. And I have had some difficulty in the past, because some people weren’t really kind of ready for Adams’ crazy ideas. But this district was. And just about anything we do that’s maybe different and is good for kids, we go with it.

DAVID NAZAR: CVUSD’s director of technical services, Israel Oliveros, provides the technical support for the entire district.

ISRAEL OLIVEROS, Director, Technology Services CVUSD: We run power through a conduit that is already existing on the bus. It goes through the front of the bus. That’s where the router is located. Then we do have the antennas pointed in different directions. For the students, that will cover a 150-foot radius.

DAVID NAZAR: The school districts allows a few of these buses to be parked throughout the East Valley overnight. For students, it’s a lifeline to the outside world.

DARRYL ADAMS: We wanted to ensure that students have 24/7 access to the Internet, because learning doesn’t stop at the end of the school day.

DAVID NAZAR: Megan Smith is the chief technology officer of the United States. It’s her job to advise the president on technology and innovation that will improve the future.

MEGAN SMITH, Chief Technology Officer, Office of Science and Technology Policy: Coachella is an incredibly creative idea. Being able to flip the classroom and be involved in — have video at home, instead of the classroom has a lecture. So, a lot of work to do in the rural areas.

DAVID NAZAR: There are federal programs in place to help provide Wi-Fi to rural school districts, like the FCC’s E-rate program, which provides about $1.5 billion each year to schools. However, census data shows that there are still five million households with school-age children who are not effectively connected to the Internet.

Smith says that has to change.

MEGAN SMITH: There is a lot of creativity that American people have.

And so whether it’s going to come from a school district, a municipal leader, or one of our national players, we need everybody in on this game working on it. It’s a very, very important, fundamental resource for all of our people. And it drives our economy. And it drives our community and our interconnections.

DAVID NAZAR: With Adams at the wheel, the graduation rate jumped from 70 percent to 80 percent. Now the superintendent has aspirations beyond students getting their homework done. He wants to connect everyone in the East Valley.

DARRYL ADAMS: Because we found that we had a problem with some of the third-party Internet service provider companies not willing to go into some of the areas where we serve. So, in the long run, we would like to become our own Time Warner or our own Cox Communication and provide this for our students. It’s too crucial for them to have this access for us not to go down this path.

DAVID NAZAR: Anisa recognizes that technology and the Wi-Fi on Wheels program is playing a vital role in her education.

ANISA PEREZ: I want to do this for my mom, because my mom didn’t really get to finish school. So that’s what motivates me to actually do — to finish school and complete my work and get the job I want.

NORMA OLIVAS: I would want her to have a better life than what I have right now. I would want her to do really, really good in school, so she can get all these ideas that she wants, nice restaurants, different things like that. That’s one thing she always wants to do, travel. And that’s what she’s hoping to go for.

DAVID NAZAR: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m David Nazar in Coachella Valley, California.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Two of our Student Reporting Labs, Etiwanda High School and West Ranch High School, traveled to the Coachella Valley to shoot the video for this story.

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