SALTON CITY, Calif. – Near the shore of the murky Salton Sea in this southern California desert, a bus drives up to West Shores High School each day with a critical connection: A Wi-Fi router mounted behind an interior mirror, providing Internet access for students whose homes aren’t wired.
At night, the bus driver parks on a sand driveway in a trailer park. There, the hotspot is available to students as long as the battery lasts. On most nights, it fades after one hour.
“I had kids sitting outside my office yesterday because they want to connect to the Internet at, like, 6 o’clock at night,” said Darryl Adams, superintendent of schools of the Coachella Valley Unified District.
Unlike the wired and wealthy Silicon Valley in northern California, many homes in the former resort town, about 65 miles north of the Mexican border do not have high-speed Internet. The school bus Wi-Fi program the district started this fall is one example of how a poor and underserved community is trying to help students get better connected.
President Barack Obama mentioned the district’s efforts in a in a recent speech in Washington, D.C. , calling the effort “really smart. You’ve got underutilized resources — buses in the evening — so you put the routers on, disperse them, and suddenly everybody is connected.”
The effort comes at a time when a lack of internet access in homes and schools remains a huge challenge. Earlier this month the Federal Communications Commission voted to increase funding for the federal e-rate program, which provides money for school districts to access the Internet, by $1.5 billion for a total of $3.9 billion annually. But the money goes to schools, not home Internet access, and roughly half of low-income families nationwide lack Internet service.
“Come on. We can do better than that as a nation, especially for our low-income families and our disadvantaged families,’’ said Adams of Coachella, where the school district is one of the nation’s poorest.
The district spans about 1,220 square miles of craggy mountains and sandy valleys; nearly nine out of ten students in the district qualify for free or reduced price lunches. More than half of the children are not fluent in English. About 2,000 students are the children of migrant farm workers. Date groves, citrus trees and grapes vines flourish on irrigated land.
Last year, district leaders gave every child a tablet computer to use in the classroom and at home. They trained teachers and set up in-house teams to improve lessons. This fall, they started the school bus Wi-Fi program, but so far only two buses have been fitted with Wi-Fi routers; the district has about 90 buses.
Many children ride buses more than an hour each way to school. Their ride weaves through an unfinished housing development near the salty, man-made lake. Modest houses, RVs and trailers provide affordable homes for people who live here.
At school, students use the tablets and the Internet to tap into a variety of educational resources, including self-paced lessons. After students got the tablet computers, completion rates for a required online health class increased, said Richard Pimentel, the West Shores principal.
Jasmine Jimenez, 13, said she sometimes stays after school to finish her schoolwork. Her Internet connection at home is not reliable. If she could get online during her long ride home on the bus, she wouldn’t have to worry about getting someone to come late to school to pick her up.
“It won’t be a big bug to ask your parents to pick you up,” she said.
As more schools get online, and teachers develop lessons that make use of new technology, more people are paying attention to at-home access.
“I think that’s the last frontier, the biggest divide,” said Sara Schapiro, the director of the League of Innovative Schools, part of Digital Promise, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that works with districts to develop and share effective school technology plans.
The educators at Coachella Unified still haven’t figured out all the logistics for the Wi-Fi school buses. Trailer parks are on private land, so each location requires cooperation from owners. And they need to find a way to keep the connection on longer than the hour of battery life available at night. The latest idea is mounting a solar panel on the bus, said Michelle Murphy, the district’s chief technology officer.
The district must also carve out money to pay for this. They estimate it will cost about $290,000 for 90 buses, district officials said. Lacking that money, they started with what they could do now. The first wired bus went to West Shores High School because the need is greatest there.
Jose Leon, 17, senior, said he is glad his school is investing in the Wi-Fi on school buses. He could have used it a few years earlier.
“At that time, I didn’t have the Internet at home,” Leon said, “so, I mean, that would have been really helpful.”
This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.