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Home Connection

The contribution of Sprint to ConnectED has helped 400 students in this Illinois district bring high-speed Internet access to their homes. 
By Carol Patton

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For several years, three educators from Elk Grove High School in Illinois met regularly with families living in local mobile home parks to provide parents with progress reports on their children. The meetings were necessary because the mobile home parks lacked Internet access, a situation that presented multiple problems for Township High School District 214, where the 2,000-student school is located.

Parents couldn’t log on to school websites for progress reports or to learn about school accomplishments, initiatives, or staff and operational changes. Students couldn’t use their iPads, which were distributed by the district, to complete online homework assignments, seek online help from teachers, or engage in chat sessions with other students. And many of these families couldn’t access the local library, which offered WiFi, because the parks were in an unincorporated area and were not eligible for city services, including library privileges.

The district searched for solutions. “We were looking at shooting a wireless signal over to a couple of mobile home parks,” recalls Keith Bockwoldt, District 214’s director of technology services. “That was going to cost $2.1 million alone. That wouldn’t even cover the needs of other schools in the district.”

Establishing off-campus Internet connections is a common problem for many districts, especially those in rural areas. According to federal government statistics, fewer than 30 percent of American schools have the broadband needed to teach with technology in the classroom. The average school has the same connectivity as the average American home but serves 200 times as many users. And less than 20 percent of educators say their school’s Internet connection meets their needs.

In 2013, President Obama announced ConnectED, an initiative designed to enable next-generation broadband and high-speed wireless access in 99 percent of schools and libraries by 2018. But to reach this goal, help was needed from the nation’s biggest telecommunication leaders. At least 10 companies signed up, including Sprint, all committed to education and bridging the digital divide. Collectively, they pledged to connect more than 20 million students during the next five years.

District 214 superintendent David Schuler says the work Sprint is doing with ConnectED is helping his district make real progress toward transitioning to a digital curriculum and reducing student achievement gaps. With 33 percent of his district’s 12,000 students falling below the poverty line, says Schuler, the program ensures that all students have Internet access to study, communicate, and collaborate after school.

“The biggest challenge we faced was how to transition to a digital curriculum without all students being able to access those resources outside of school,” explains Schuler. “We’re very thankful and appreciative to Sprint and others in the private sector for partnering with schools. Those partnerships are absolutely critical for our students to be able to learn and be on an even playing field.”

Equal Access, Equal Opportunity

For the past two years, Sprint has been working to provide 50,000 lines of service to schools for Internet connections, along with four years of free Sprint 4G LTE service, its highest-speed and highest-capacity network. Jim Spillane, director of Sprint’s ConnectED Initiative, says the company is working with 33 school districts nationwide, each in various stages of the federal grant approval process.

"Our goal is to get everyone up and running from August until early next year," he says, adding that the company is about halfway there. “We’ll continue to work with as many schools as possible and promote this until we get the 50,000 lines. At Sprint, we do good works because good does indeed work. That’s why we support ConnectED as part of our Sprint Good Works platform.”  

Spillane says schools can apply online for grants at sprint.com/ConnectED. In the case of District 214, it bought 400 MiFi hotspots from Sprint at cost and then assigned the devices to students for home Internet access.

So far, says Spillane, the company’s biggest challenge has been generating program awareness. Many school administrators at conferences he attends are familiar with ConnectED but unclear about its direct benefits or advantages for teachers and students.

Going Digital

Starting in 2009, District 214 introduced a series of changes that would transform learning for its 800 teachers and 12,000 students. The district redesigned its classroom instructional materials and implemented a policy requiring teachers to first review digital resources before purchasing textbooks, says Bockwoldt. English and math teachers participated in professional learning communities and developed their own digital curriculums. Each year, teachers were asked to submit pilot proposals outlining how they would use technology to enhance classroom learning—the number of proposals jumped from nine in 2010 to 39 last year.

The district has also distributed iPads to 9,000 students, with plans to equip every student with a mobile device by 2017. Funding for the mobile devices involved a budget shift, explains Bockwoldt. The district is reducing the size of its computer labs, which now contain 6,300 computers; instead of spending money to replace them, it’s using those funds for mobile devices.

“As we moved ahead, we were able to grow capacity and show achievement rates,” Bockwoldt says. “In freshman math, a non-iPad class had an 88 percent [passing] rate, which means students had an A, B, or C, and 12 percent had Ds or Fs. In an iPad class, that shot up to a 93 percent success rate. It’s now 100 percent.”

Is that improvement due to the device or the teachers? Bockwoldt credits both. While technology certainly engages students, he says teaching has dramatically changed. Teachers and students can communicate off campus in real time. Students are crowdsourcing with one another as they work through homework assignments. Just as important, learning has become a continuous process, both on and off campus.

And those students in mobile home parks and elsewhere who initially couldn’t take part in the district’s digital transformation? That gap was filled last year when District 214 received a grant from Sprint, providing nearly 4 percent of its student population with Internet connectivity in their homes.

“Sprint [and the district teamed up to] provide approximately 400 MiFi hotspots for students who didn’t have Internet access at home,” Bockwoldt says, referring to routers that provide mobile Internet access. Sprint then provided the families with four years of free ultra-high-speed Sprint 4G LTE services. Without Internet connectivity, these students had to complete their homework at stores or other places that have WiFi, Bockwoldt adds. Now, all students can learn at their own pace, on their own time.

Many take advantage of that flexibility. Based on data pulled from the district’s management learning system, some students log in at two o’clock in the morning to submit assignments.

“I feel really good knowing we are closing this gap for students who can’t afford [connectivity] and giving them the same opportunity to go home, learn, do their homework, and submit it just like any other student,” says Bockwoldt.

Custom-Made Learning

Linda Ashida is an innovative technology facilitator (ITF) at Elk Grove High School. Having Internet connectivity, she says, offers choice.

Consider the English teacher who has both struggling and advanced readers in his class, or the math teacher with a small number of students who didn’t perform well on a test. With Internet resources, Ashida says, there are many ways these teachers can organize student learning and respond to each student’s unique needs. For instance, they might offer afterschool help by providing review sessions on iPads, inviting students to jump in and collaborate.

“We’re able to personalize and differentiate learning,” she says. “We also let students use social media to share their learning and gain authentic audiences. We have students who write blogs and tweet about their class work.”

For incoming freshman, the district offers a two-day orientation at the beginning of each school year. Students are divided into roughly 20 groups, each facilitated by a teacher. During the orientation, each group participates in seven or eight workshops that focus on a wide range of topics, such as learning with technology, digital citizenship, and communicating via e-mail.

Ashida, who taught AP Spanish for several years before moving into her current position, says she noticed improvement among her students the first year they started using iPads. Learning with technology enhanced student engagement and ownership, encouraged more content creation and self-direction, and increased the student pass rate by 11 percent, she says. The district requires teachers to complete a blended graduate course that consists of online instruction and classroom sessions. Offered by Quincy University, the course was designed by the district’s teachers and focuses on developing iPad lessons for the classroom.

In her current role, Ashida, along with other ITFs and four district coaches, helps teachers implement and take advantage of technology in various ways. She and her colleagues offer classroom observations, conduct drop-in workshops, coordinate teacher-led sessions, provide technology demonstrations, and share best practices on Twitter and via a district blog.

With the involvement of Sprint through ConnectED, says Ashida, students without Internet access at home no longer have to jump through hoops to get their work done. One student, she says, had to write papers on her cell phone and another could access her neighbor’s WiFi but had to sit outside his house at night in an unsafe neighborhood to complete her homework.

“Even though we gave students iPads, they weren’t able to fully use them,” she says. “Sprint is making all of this transformative learning available to each and every student in our district, which is huge and very exciting.”

The iPad’s Impact on Learning
District 214 has charted students’ progress since providing them with iPads beginning in the 2012-13 school year. Here are percentage increases for students earning at least a C in intermediate algebra.

2011-12 (non-iPad)   60%
2012-13                     93%
2013-14                     92%
2014-15                     92%

For more information about Sprint and ConnectED, and to apply online for grants, visit sprint.com/ConnectED

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