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Wireless Internet Installation Will Help Students in Poor Areas of Bangor, Maine

Students who have a school-owned mobile device would be able to get online at home if they live in a lower-income neighborhood.

by Nick McCrea, Bangor Daily News, Maine / June 23, 2016

(TNS) — BANGOR, Maine — Bangor's plan to install free wireless internet in one of the city's poorest areas could help impoverished students keep pace with their peers from higher-income families, Capehart officials and parents believe.

Amanda Bushwood, a Capehart resident with two daughters attending Downeast School in the neighborhood, said she doesn't have internet access at home and is concerned about what that might mean for her daughters in the future.

"I can't afford it," she said Tuesday during a lunch for local kids at the Bangor Housing Authority community center.

The same goes for many of her neighbors, who find it difficult to come up with the extra $50 each month needed to get internet in their apartments, she said.

Her daughters, ages 8 and 4, don't yet have school-issued laptops or tablets, but they will be able to bring them home in a few years. Not having internet at home would put her girls at a disadvantage, Bushwood said.

Bobbie Smith, another Capehart resident, has a sixth- and seventh-grader in the Bangor school system. Both her kids have laptops provided by the school, and more of their work is becoming centered online, she said.

"I have [internet] strictly because they had to have it for school," she said.

The network could be accessed by any students in the Bangor school system who live in Capehart and have a school-issued device, according to Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb. That restriction would allow school officials to better monitor the use of the network, she said. Students in grades six through 12 are allowed to take home laptops provided by the school department, and Chromebooks are now being distributed to students in grades three through five.

The project, with an estimated cost of $27,500, plus $6,000 to run the network, would be funded with Community Development Block Grant money. Community Development Block Grant funding can only be allocated toward projects in low- to-moderate income areas.

"I think this is an exciting opportunity for our students," Webb told city councilors during a meeting Monday night.

The effort is being pitched as a pilot, and it could spread to other parts of the city if successful.

More than half of the students in Bangor's school district are eligible for free and reduced lunch under federal poverty guidelines. During the 2014-2015 school year, more than 2,000 of the district's 3,784 students qualified, according to the Maine Department of Education.

At Downeast School, located in the heart of the Capehart, 94 percent of the pre-K through third-graders attending qualify for free and reduced lunch. The lowest rate of free-and-reduced lunch kids among the 10 schools in the district is at William S. Cohen School, where more than a third of the students are eligible.

Nearly every Maine school has a high-speed fiber-optic internet connection through the Maine School and Library Network, which represents nearly 1,000 schools, universities, libraries and other institutions across the state.

But the same isn't true for many low-income students when they go home. As more homework, research projects and learning opportunities move to the internet, students without home access can fall behind their peers when they leave school.

Experts who deal in education and technology call that the "homework gap," and have been grappling with ways to close it for years. One of the strategies has been to create public Wi-Fi corridors in impoverished neighborhoods.

"We're all about providing opportunities that level the playing field, that's why we're here," Catherine Hamil, director of the Boys and Girls Club for Bangor Housing Authority, said.

The Boys and Girls Club hosts Smarter Summer Camp for Capehart students each summer in hopes of helping students continue to learn while they're out of school. Studies have shown students can lose what they've learned during the school year if they don't keep up learning during the summer months. Low-income students are especially vulnerable to this because they tend to have less access to books, technology and the internet while out of school.

Every summer, low-income youth lose two to three months of progress in reading, while their higher-income peers make slight gains, according to the National Summer Learning Association. Many of the resources that help students make these gains are available online, but too many residents in low-income neighborhoods such as Capehart don't have reliable internet to help them access those tools.

Other communities in Maine and across the nation have grappled with ways to spread internet access to those who can't afford it, but are often in the most need of opportunities offered on the web.

In Washington County, several libraries have started "check out the internet" programs in which residents can borrow Wi-Fi devices from their local libraries and take them home.

In the Coachella Valley School District in rural Southern California, school officials installed wireless routers in school buses, which they parked in trailer parks with high numbers of low-income students to ensure they had internet access at home. Many districts have experimented with installing public wireless in public housing complexes.

During Monday's meeting, Councilor Gibran Graham raised some concerns about the program. He said he believed there were too many restrictions on who could use the network, and that the plan was "segmenting" the population too much. He argued that younger students in the neighborhood, who can't yet bring home school laptops, should be able to access the network as well.

Webb said only allowing school-issued devices would make it easier for the district to monitor use of the network.

Overall, the Wi-Fi idea received strong support from councilors.

"We really have put this on a fast timeline," Webb said. "We're hoping to have this running in time for school [this fall]."

©2016 the Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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