The Coachella Valley Unified School District is doing its best to keep the East Valley connected.
The district—which encompasses 21 schools at the eastern end of the valley from Indio to the Salton Sea—recently announced that the school board had approved the installation of wireless Internet routers on all 100 buses in the district’s fleet. The decision came after a successful pilot program, which began eight months before, with the implementation of Wi-Fi connectivity on three buses.
Also approved was the installation of solar panels on 10 buses in order to extend the routers’ battery life so they can become mobile wireless “hotspots” that will be parked overnight in communities where no wireless access currently exists.
Superintendent Dr. Darryl Adams sees this strategy as part of the core service the school district must provide to its students.
“You know every school district eventually is going to have to ensure that students have (continuous Internet) access,” Dr. Adams said.
This innovative program grew out of brainstorming sessions involving Dr. Adams and his administrative team.
“We have a great team working to ensure that our students have Internet access,” Dr. Adams said. “One of the things that I thought of was that we have all these buses, so why can’t we put a router on a bus? That would allow us to park the buses overnight in communities where there was no access. Also, students would be able to connect on the way to school, while on field trips or going to athletic events. So, sometimes when I come up with these crazy ideas, the team will look at you and say, ‘There, he’s lost it again.’ But this time, they said, ‘No. Let’s listen to this. Let’s see if we can do it.’ And, as it turned out, we could actually do it.”
The total first-year cost of the initiative is projected to be $232,065. That includes all hardware, software, installation and connectivity charges. The funding will come solely from the CVUSD budget.
How did the administrative team demonstrate the pilot program’s success to the board? “Because the tech is so new, and the transition into it is new, there’s not a lot of quantifiable data available,” Adams said. “But we looked at the qualitative data through satisfaction surveys and talking to students, and talking to parents, and we got a lot of positives.
“Students have been coming over to the district offices and sitting in the parking lot to connect, or they were going to their school sites and sitting out there to connect. So we knew there had to be a better way.”
A significant part of that “better way” is the mobile-hotspot feature of this program. CVUSD director of technology Michelle Murphy saw the demand very clearly.
“We visited trailer parks and talked to residents, and we found the need to be even greater than we thought,” Murphy said. “They had tried other services that had promised them low fees for connectivity, and they didn’t receive the service that they’d been promised.”
She anticipates that all of the buses will be Wi-Fi operational by Christmas break of 2015.
The new mobile Wi-Fi access is the latest development in the student-connectivity effort that began with the passing of Measure X in CVUSD territory back in 2012. With 67 percent of voters approving, that bond earmarked $42 million to be made available to the school district in segments. The first phase of the program began in 2013 and utilized $20 million to build Wi-Fi connectivity into each school campus, and purchase an iPad for every one of the approximately 19,000 students in the district.
“We plan to refresh (our students’ iPads) every two years to keep up with the changes in technology,” stated Dr. Adams. “We’ll probably use about $5 million for that refreshing program, and that leaves us $15 million. So, we should get to 2021-2022 with this money. And we’re hoping that federal and state governments by that time will give the school districts that money—just like they used to give us textbook money, we’re hoping that they’ll be giving us tech money now to ensure that our students remain connected. Because if they’re not, then the U.S. will be at a disadvantage, since other countries are doing this already.”