How One School District Used Buses to Bring the Internet Home

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First, Coachella Valley Unified School District Superintendent Darryl Adams got his students iPads. Then, he had to figure out a way to provide them Web access outside of class.

By Rick Paulas

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(Photo: slippek/Flickr)

After the annual exodus of dehydrated hipsters, after the stages are broken down and the tents crumpled and the abandoned hula hoops left to rot in the sun, the town of Indio in Coachella Valley goes back to business as usual. While the hotels and savvy residents who dabble in the Airbnb trade do so with a little extra dough in their pockets, a good portion of the Valley’s 340,000 residents get nothing.

One in five residents of the Valley live in poverty, with more people living in trailer parks than in homes, and many of them living without electricity, water, or sewage. That translates to the area being home to one of the country’s poorest school districts, where 100 percent of the 20,000 students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch plans.

With numbers like that, you wouldn’t think the district could afford Internet access. But you’d be wrong.

In 2011, Darryl Adams became the superintendent of the Coachella Valley Unified School District, and among his first orders of business was getting every student an iPad and Internet access. “We provide textbooks,” Adams says. “But now, technology is so crucial to provide access and efficiency in their learnings.”

“One car or van covers about a 100-yard radius, most of the size of our trailer home parks. Some that are larger, we’ll place an additional vehicle.”

He spent his first year drilling the community on technology’s potential. It paid off on election day in 2012, when the community overwhelmingly passed Measure X, providing $41 million in bond money to be used to “upgrade electrical and computer systems to keep pace with current and future technology.” Adams got his iPads, but that was only the beginning. A survey showed that only 60 percent of students had home Internet service.

So for the district’s next trick, Adams eyed the parking lot.

The Coachella Valley school district utilizes some 100 buses to take students to and from schools, generally from the poorest sections in the area. “Kids could probably use Internet on their way to school,” he says, so the district fitted the buses with Wi-Fi routers as part of a pilot program in 2013. It worked so well (the only problem being that the batteries in the routers ran out after an hour, simply solved by sticking solar panels on bus rooftops) that the district quickly made it an official program.

The Wi-Fi and solar panel set-up costs roughly $3,000 per bus, adding up to about $300,000 for the entire fleet. That’s not an overwhelming amount. “I have a $230 million budget, so $300,000 isn’t going to break the bank,” Adams says. Plus, the access students receive on route is only a part of the service the district offers.

Rather than the “off-duty” buses being parked in a lot at the end of the school day, they’re driven to the district’s poorest communities. There, the Wi-Fi router broadcasts a signal to the trailer parks and apartments that were once without service. If the area doesn’t have enough space for a full-sized school bus, they use salvage vehicles that would normally be sold off for scraps as mobile Wi-Fi routers.

“One car or van covers about a 100-yard radius, most of the size of our trailer home parks. Some that are larger, we’ll place an additional vehicle,” Adams says. As far as any worries over the standard brand of vandalism that comes with things lying around for punk kids to mess with? “We don’t have any problems with [that],” Adams says. “It’s like, ‘That’s my connection to the world!’”

While the move to connectivity was ostensibly for the students, entire families are reaping the benefits of the district’s decision. “Families are using devices to learn, as well to connect, and take online classes, and use financial software,” Adams says. “It’s changed the game in so many ways. It’s been a truly major major shift about how we think about education here in the Coachella Valley.”

“Families are using devices to learn, as well to connect, and take online classes, and use financial software.”

As you’d imagine, a successful program like this is bound to catch a few eyes, particularly after President Barack Obama praised the community by name. In fact, The White House’s Office of Educational Technology has a page devoted to detailing this program so that other districts can learn from it. “The president gets it,” Adams says of the importance of bringing connectivity to the country’s students. “It’s just the impotence out of Congress, and some state legislature.” But even without broad assistance on a national level, school districts are deciding to expand their Wi-Fi offerings on their own.

“We got a lot of calls and visits from districts, some rural like us trying to replicate this process,” Adams says. “Whether or not they park it overnight, that’s another question, but at least they can connect on these long rides in rural areas.” A district in Iowa has announced plans, along with one in Boston. If you look hard enough, Wi-Fi on school buses is quickly becoming the norm. To Adams, the only aspect keeping it from expanding more rapidly is a buy-in from the towns. “You have to agree as a community to do this,” Adams says. “Some [communities] are not there yet where they realize the importance of it, but most will get to that point.”

Coachella Valley isn’t done either. Next on the list for Adams is making the district its own independent Internet Service Provider. “Then we won’t have to depend on third parties to provide access,” he says. “We feel it’s something the school district should provide.” And if other schools start adapting this process, on top of the towns already dabbling in public ISP creation, it may only be a matter of time before the big ISPs have to give in and start improving their services.

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