Assignment: Education – Hot spots for rural schools

Westby Middle School student Emily Volden uses her school-issued Chromebook daily.

“We’ll be using our Chromebooks for the next project that we’re doing,” said Volden.

The Westby Area School District is a 1-to-1 campus which means every student in grades three through 12 receives a Chromebook to use during the school year. Pre-kindergarten through second-grade students each have an iPad. Students in grades five through 12 may take their devices home.

“Chromebooks work exclusively on an internet platform,” said Charles Norton, the Westby Area School District superintendent. “You can do some work offline, but (the) majority, the lion’s share, of anything you’re going to do on a Chromebook device has to be done with connectivity to broadband. So it’s critically important that our students have that access.”

But when you live in rural Wisconsin, equal access to the internet can be difficult to find.

“Only at my mom’s house,” said Volden. “Not my dad’s.”

Volden is part of the almost 7 percent of the Westby Area District students who doesn’t have access to internet at home. So, if she can’t finish her homework at school, she has to find a way to do so outside of school.

“My grandma has internet,” said Volden. “So, I’ll go to her house.”

A survey conducted in March by the Westby Area School District also revealed 12 percent of the student population was accessing the internet through their personal cellphone plans.

“And that was something that we saw on the comments on the survey is that students said, ‘Yes I’m using internet at home. I’m using internet for my Chromebook, and I would prefer not to have to push the limits of my monthly data to do my homework,'” said Nathan Papendorf, technology support and integration specialist.

Gov. Walker’s budget proposal wants to increase funding for a technology infrastructure grant program by $22.5 million. That could help rural districts provide internet access to all students.

“So we decided to start doing our homework and get ready for that eventuality should it come to pass,” said Papendorf.

If the funding is approved, the grant program would reimburse eligible school districts, such as Westby, for the purchase of mobile hot spots for students to share.

“Some students only need it once or twice a week and some need it every day,” said Papendorf. “And if we ran that through the library and students could check them out based on their need, I think that we could accomplish that pretty easily.”

Another option is to provide a mobile hot spot in the one place some students in the Westby Area School District can spend an hour or more of their time.

“In a rural community, with a lot of busing — very big service area that the district provides — the ability for the students to have those devices on the buses, especially some of the students that are more farther flung out in the district with maybe fairly long bus rides to have access while they’re on the bus and riding in to school or back home could be very beneficial to them,” said Papendorf.

Volden agrees that hot spots could be the answer.

“Then I wouldn’t have to go to other people’s houses or go to a restaurant since they have internet,” said Volden. “I wouldn’t have to go anywhere. I’d just have to stay home and do my homework.”

For now, rural districts like Westby will continue to wait to see if the Legislature will pass Walker’s budget proposal in the next few months.

“It’ll be a competitive opportunity,” said Norton. “And it’s hard to say at this point how that money will be broken down, what the parameters are going to be to actually qualify for it. But we will definitely throw our hat in the ring and attempt to get a share for Westby.”