(TNS) -- MISHAWAKA — Ashlynn Eskridge and Maggie Roberts, both juniors at Mishawaka High School, excitedly cracked open orange boxes and pulled out their new Motorola smartphones Wednesday afternoon.
As any 17-year-old would, Eskridge immediately fired up a messaging app. But the students knew the mobile devices, offering high-speed wireless internet access, aren’t meant just for fun. These days, it’s easy to get behind on homework without reliable internet connectivity.
“When you get to 11th grade, you have to turn in a lot of homework online,” Roberts said, “and that’s kind of hard when you don’t have internet.”
School City of Mishawaka staff Wednesday began handing out free smartphones provided by Sprint to offer internet access to hundreds of high school students who have little or no access at home.
Officials say students without internet access at home can face difficulty in communicating with teachers and keeping up with homework, which now often involves online elements.
“We know there are students or families who don’t have access at home, so that prevents kids from achieving their full potential,” said Eric Johnson, the district’s director of technology. “If I can’t research efficiently or produce a digital document — that’s not a situation I want our students to struggle with.”
As an example, Johnson pointed to a case in which a group of students is working together on a presentation with a digital slide show. A student without internet at home would be left out or would have to go to the library or a coffee shop to work on the project.
Tech leaders have described the lack of internet access for some students as the “homework gap,” and research shows it affects about 5 million American families with school-age children. Mishawaka school officials believe that about 550 of the district’s high schoolers are in that category.
In the past year, Sprint has rolled out a program it calls the 1Million Project, which aims to provide internet access to 1 million students over the next five years.
In Mishawaka’s case, Sprint provided smartphones that can be used as wireless internet “hot spots,” giving students access to 3 GB of high-speed “LTE” data per month, enough to watch eight hours of video, send 300 emails and browse 200 web pages. After the first 3 GB, the service will continue for free but at a reduced speed.
Sprint requires students who receive the phones to either have no access to the internet at home, have access to the internet but only one computer or device shared among multiple siblings or have internet at very low speeds, such as obsolete dial-up service.
District officials say the devices also are equipped with filtering software that cannot be disabled, and Johnson said he hopes the limitations on data would encourage students to conserve the wireless capabilities for homework.
In a previous survey of high school students, the district found that about 550 students would likely qualify based on Sprint’s criteria. The program will be open to all Mishawaka High School students for the first year, with each student expected to receive the service through their high school career. Starting next year, the program will extend to each new freshman class for the next four years.
Staff distributed the smartphones after school Wednesday and plan to distribute them again Friday afternoon. Each student who receives a device must take another survey and have a signed parental consent form. Students were sent home with letters for parents about the program Monday, Johnson said.
A few dozen students made their way through a line to receive their devices Wednesday.
Zach Matthews, a sophomore, said he’s always had to spend time after school in a classroom or the school library to complete homework on a computer. On occasion, he’s missed assignments that were meant to be submitted online.
“Most of my classes have stuff I have to do online, and most makeup work is online,” he said. “Now I’ll be able to get it finished without any trouble.”
As the district’s technology director, Johnson has made a habit of finding unique ways to fill needs for students. Last year, he got 1,700 used laptops, worth about $1.2 million, through a government surplus program. Those computers were used for the district’s “one-for-one” initiative to supply every student with a laptop or tablet.
“Our administration encourages that type of innovative thinking,” he said. “The ability to jump on that and be nimble and responsive is great.”
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