Eliminating the digital divide

Lack of reliable internet access and high-tech learning tools can put low-income and rural students at a disadvantage. In an effort to bridge this digital divide, a superintendent at one of the poorest school districts in the nation created an initiative that provides students with 24/7 access to the internet.


Lack of reliable Internet access and high-tech learning tools can put low-income and rural students at a disadvantage.

In an effort to bridge this digital divide, a superintendent at one of the poorest school districts in the nation created an initiative that provides students with 24/7 access to the Internet.

Here's a look.

30 minutes west of the wealthy suburbs of Palm Springs is a desert oasis best known for 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.

We have some of the poorest of the poor in our country, very economically challenged, and 100% of our students on free and reduced lunch.

Some of them are living in trailer home parks -- You know, some have been condemned recently -- or some in abandoned railroad cars.

I mean, it's just unbelievable, some of the challenges they face.

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.

I do see students sometimes struggling, and right now, sometimes you see some of the kids struggling to get to school, to do certain things, and I wouldn't want my daughter to go through any of that.

I wouldn't want her to be a dropout.

When Adams took the job in 2011, the graduation rate was 70% 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 a challenge.

We have 1,250 square miles to cover, larger than the state of Rhode Island.

So when we found out there was spots in areas where students were not connected, we said, 'Well, how can we get them connected?'

And so one of the ways is, 'Well, look, we got 100 buses.

Let's put wi-fi routers on those buses and let's park them where the need is.'

Finding the funding for this fleet of buses was no easy task.

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 WiFi on Wheels.

Can you give me another day?

[ Chuckles ] 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.

Completing assignments was difficult for Anisa before getting her iPad and wi-fi service at home.

We'd have to travel actually to go in there, 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.

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

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

Installing solar panels on the rooftops of the school buses to power the state-of-the-art wi-fi routers was a solution proposed by Adams.

Being a musician by trade, I was a music teacher from L.A. Unified when I started out, you know, 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've had some difficulty in the past because some people weren't really kind of ready for Adams' crazy ideas.

But this district was, and this is about anything we do that's maybe different, and it's good for kids, we go with it.

CVUSD's director of technology services, Israel Olivares, provides the technical support for the entire district.

We run the power through a conduit that was already existing on the bus.

It goes to the front of the bus.

That's where the router's located.

Then we do have the antennas pointing in different directions that'll cover 150-foot radius.

The school district allows a few of these buses to be parked throughout the East Valley overnight.

For students, it's a lifeline to the outside world.

We wanted to ensure that students has 24/7 access to the Internet because learning does not stop at the end of the school day.

What should we do at the elementary school level...

Megan Smith is the chief technology officer of the United States.

It's her job to advise a president on technology and innovation that will improve the future.

Coachella has an incredibly creative idea.

Being able to flip the classroom and be involved in, you know, have video at home instead of the classroom has a lecture, so a lot of work to do in the rural areas.

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 5 million households with school-aged children who are not effectively connected to the Internet.

Smith says that has to change.

There's a lot of creativity that American people have, and so whether it's gonna come from a school district, the 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.

It drives our economy.

It drives our community and our interconnections.

With Adams at the wheel, the graduation rate jumped from 70% to 80%. Now the superintendent has aspirations beyond students getting their homework done.

He wants to connect everyone in the East Valley.

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 Cost 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.

Anisa recognizes that technology and the WiFi on Wheels program is playing a vital role in her education.

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 to finish school and complete my work and get the job I want.

I 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.