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How Fort Worth, Texas, Helps Students Lacking Broadband

Nationwide, students in low-income households are less likely than their peers to have high-speed Internet connections at home, a problem education leaders and researchers call the 'homework gap.'

by Silas Allen, Fort Worth Star-Telegram / November 2, 2020

(TNS) — Sumia Brown had to improvise last spring when Fort Worth ISD shut down its schools and moved classes online.

Brown didn't have internet access at her home in Stop Six. So she and her son Elijah, then a first-grader at Maudrie M. Walton Elementary School, did whatever they could to make it work.

A neighbor let Brown piggyback on her wifi network, but the connection wasn't always stable because of the distance, and Brown felt bad about taking advantage. Brown tried using her cellphone as a wifi hotspot, but Elijah's online classes froze on his screen, and he missed large sections of what his teacher said. Sometimes, when they were out of other options, Brown would drive Elijah to a nearby McDonald's, where they'd sit in the parking lot and use the restaurant's free wifi.

About two months ago, when Fort Worth ISD started this school year online, Brown bought a broadband internet subscription. Elijah, now in second grade, has an easier time accessing his online classes, she said. But the service takes a big cut of the family's budget.

"It's expensive," she said. "It might not seem expensive to some, but $64 a month is expensive to me."

Nationwide, students in Black, Hispanic and low-income households are less likely than their peers to have high-speed internet connections at home, a problem education leaders and researchers call the 'homework gap.' At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fort Worth ISD spent $13 million to buy 21,000 mobile wifi hotspots and 63,000 Google Chromebooks and other tablets to send home with students who needed them to do school work. But district officials acknowledged that plan was only a temporary fix.

Now, officials in Fort Worth are working on a more permanent solution. Fort Worth ISD and the city of Fort Worth plan to blanket under served neighborhoods with free public wifi. District officials say the plan will help close gaps between low-income students and their peers — a problem that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic.

City, schools plan to build wifi towers

Officials in Fort Worth ISD and the city of Fort Worth are working on a pair of complementary plans to offer wifi access to areas of the city with low rates of broadband access. District officials hope to build wifi towers that would allow students to connect to the district's network from home. Officials hope to fund the project with money from the upcoming tax rate election, which is on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Each tower would cover seven square miles and would cost the district about $400,000 to build, said Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Kent Scribner. If voters approve the tax rate proposal, the district could begin work on towers in the highest-need areas immediately, Scribner said. The first towers could be finished and online within six months, he said. The district would use the same content filters for its public wifi as it uses at school, so students couldn't use the network to access illegal or inappropriate material.

The district also hopes to use money from the tax rate election to supply every student in the district with a device to use for school work. The district already supplies students in grades 6-12 with Chromebooks. Scribner said the district plans to continue providing Chromebooks to students in upper grades and begin supplying younger students with tablets.

The district's plan would work in conjunction with the city of Fort Worth's plan to offer free public wifi in the Stop Six, Ash Crescent, North Side and Rosemont neighborhoods. The city plans to use $5 million in CARES Act money to relay wifi from city buildings like community centers to receivers on streetlights, traffic lights and other utilities, which would blanket the surrounding area with wifi.

District officials plan to target several ZIP codes in east, south and southeast Fort Worth where fewer than a third of students have high-speed internet connections at home: 76104, 76102, 76105, 76115, 76164 and 76103. Clint Bond, a spokesman for the district, said Fort Worth ISD's plan will complement the city's program.

"School district senior leadership has been part of these discussions, and we are looking forward to continued collaboration with the city to realize the most effective outcomes possible for every student in every neighborhood — especially those economically disadvantaged communities that are currently under served," he said.

Scribner said providing wifi through towers is a better option than using mobile hotspots because it's based on permanent infrastructure in the same way as other utilities like electricity and water. Using hotspots worked well as a temporary stopgap in a crisis, he said.

Across Texas, just 43% of students whose families are in poverty have computers and high-speed internet access at home, according to a study commissioned by the Texas State Teachers Association. By comparison, 74% of middle- and upper-income families had both computers and broadband access at home, according to the study. White students were also more likely than Black or Hispanic students to have access to both broadband internet and computers.

Scribner said it's critical that the district finds a way to provide broadband access to students who don't have it, not only while students work from home during the pandemic, but also after it ends. The COVID-19 pandemic is a turning point in education, Scribner said, and it's unlikely that school districts will return to the way they did business before. Once the pandemic ends, Fort Worth ISD will need to help students make up ground they lost during school shutdowns. Scribner said he expects much of that work will happen online, in the evenings and on Saturdays.

Internet access at home will be important for students even after the district has dealt with the long-term effects of the pandemic, said Jeremy Smith, president of the Rainwater Charitable Foundation, a Fort Worth-based nonprofit that supports education projects across North Texas. Older students need internet access to do their homework, and younger students need it for enrichment activities, he said.

Internet access is also important during the summer, when schools aren't in session, Smith said. Researchers and education leaders have long worried about the learning losses that happen over summer break, widening certain achievement gaps. Enrichment activities can help families combat those learning losses, Smith said, but families who don't have computers and internet access at home are often cut off from those resources.

In years past, Fort Worth ISD required students to turn in their Chromebooks at the end of the school year. But the district allowed students to keep their Chromebooks last summer so they could participate in virtual summer learning programs. Bond, the district spokesman, said district officials haven't decided whether they'll allow students to keep their devices next summer.

The Rainwater Charitable Foundation partners with schools in the district on a number of projects, including the wifi tower project. Smith said the foundation is ready to help the district finance the wifi tower project if voters reject the upcoming tax rate proposal. The project is an opportunity for the community to recover and put itself in a stronger place than it was before the pandemic, he said. It's a chance the city can't pass up, even if that means looking elsewhere for funding, he said.

"This is just something that has to be done," he said.

Digital divide is a long-term problem

Peggy Semingson, a professor in the University of Texas at Arlington's College of Education, said it's important that districts find a permanent solution for the digital divide because it isn't a temporary problem. Semingson, who specializes in distance learning, said the problem affected low-income families for years before COVID-19 forced schools to move classes online. The pandemic just brought the issue to the surface, she said.

The need for reliable internet access isn't only an issue for students who do online classes, Semingson said. School districts use online learning management systems like Google Classroom and Canvas for online and in-person students alike, she said. So when in-person students go home, they need to be able to get online to access most of their homework assignments. That will still be the case after districts bring all students back in person, she said.

"The more I read, the more I think that we're going to be in this situation even post-COVID — whatever that means," Semingson said.

Once public wifi is available, Semingson said the district needs to be ready to help parents and students troubleshoot problems. Some parents won't know how to connect to the network. Others might need help when their devices break down.

Even after public wifi is online, the district should consider making mobile hotspots available to students who need them, Semingson said. Low-income families tend to move often, she said. Wifi hotspots could be a worthwhile safety net for students who move outside the area covered by public wifi or go to visit family members who don't have high-speed internet access at home, she said.

Castleberry schools offer model

Fort Worth ISD's plan is modeled on one already in place in Castleberry ISD.  John Ramos, the Castleberry schools superintendent, said the last of the district's three wifi towers came online the week after spring break, just days before the district shut down in-person classes.

"Our folks definitely hustled to make that happen," he said.

Castleberry ISD's wifi network is content-filtered, and it only works with devices the district issues to students, so the district can control who has access to it, Ramos said.

The network covers about 95% of students in the district, Ramos said. Students who live in lower-lying areas generally have trouble connecting to the network, he said, so the district has wifi hotspots available, as well. When the pandemic began, the district only had to buy about 35 hotspots, he said, and every student who has requested free internet access has gotten it.

The plan cost the district $750,000. But Ramos said the money the district spent was a good investment. Districts that opted to hand out wifi hotspots to students who don't have internet access at home have to pay monthly for that service. And Ramos said the district's wifi service is more reliable than what mobile hotspots offer.

There are major differences between Castleberry ISD and Fort Worth ISD. The Castleberry school district covers about 5.6 square miles of densely populated area in western Tarrant County. By comparison, Fort Worth ISD sprawls across 209 square miles. But Ramos said he thought a similar plan could work just as well for a larger district, as long as officials think strategically about where to place wifi towers and target high-poverty areas first.

Public internet service must be reliable

Brown, the Maudrie M. Walton mother, said access to high-speed internet is going to be an issue for her family for some time. She expects to keep her son at home for a while longer. Elijah has asthma and severe allergies, and she worries about how COVID-19 would affect him. She knows how bad the disease can be. Brown, a certified nursing assistant, caught COVID-19 in July while she was working. She had severe pneumonia in both lungs, she said. At one point, she wasn't sure she would survive, she said.

Brown said she'd be willing to try public wifi for Elijah's classes once it comes online. But she worries about how reliable the free service would be. She saw how frustrating it was when his classes buffered or he lost his connection before she had broadband service at home, and she's concerned he'd have the same problems with public wifi when every student in the district connects at once. She'd be happy to be able to cancel her internet service, she said, but not if it means going back to the kind of spotty service she had before.

"It might save me money," Brown said. "But at the same time, is it really going to work? Or is it going to create the same frustration I came from?"

(c)2020 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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