For the past few years, Andrew Moore, the CIO of Boulder Valley School District, has made the homework gap a top priority. Moore believes that closing the digital divide is so important that he calls it the “civil rights issue of our day.”

To tackle this issue and provide equal learning opportunities for all of their students, BVSD partnered with a local Internet service provider on a pilot project to deliver free fixed wireless connectivity to low-income families in the school district. This project is known as “Connect My Education” (ConnectME).  

How a Public-Private Partnership Helped Close the Gap

Unlike low-income residential broadband offerings or personal hotspots, which provide access at an individual level, ConnectME aims to identify solutions that can easily be scaled without significant cost to the school district.   

In exchange for real estate for LiveWireNet to place their antennas and dark fiber for backhaul, the company offers all qualified free and reduced lunch students free home Internet access. BVSD also negotiated a revenue share into their contract so that after the two to three years it will take to build out the network, the school district will earn a 25% revenue share. They will use these funds to purchase devices for students. 

COVID-19 Accelerates Efforts to Connect Students

Even though BVSD had been thinking about ways to ensure universal home access for its students for years, the COVID-19 crisis brought a new urgency to the work and exposed the same question for Boulder that school districts across the country have grappled with during the transition to online learning: which students have the home access needed to continue their educations remotely and which ones don’t?

Boulder’s first attempt was to send a survey to families at the end of March, shortly after schools were closed. “With good intentions, the survey fell short for a number of reasons including no Internet to respond to the survey, ” Andrew reflected. They received a 50% response rate and struggled to identify which households had an immediate connectivity need.

Realizing that closing the homework gap would require a more targeted and concerted approach to data collection, Boulder adopted an outreach-based strategy.  First, they worked with school principals across the district who had a better sense of which students might have challenges based on participation rates in classwork as well as in online video meetings.

Equipped with a more targeted list of students potentially in need, the district conducted phone outreach to their families. These households were asked specific questions about their Internet connections and provided with a step-by-step guide on how to get connected. 

Through these efforts, Boulder initially identified over 1000 students in the district who lacked home Internet access. The district walked the families of these students through a variety of options to deliver access, including a Comcast Internet Essentials sponsored services account, district-issued T-Mobile and Verizon hotspots, and the ConnectME solution in partnership with local provider LiveWireNet. 

As the district continued to work through their list of unconnected households and solutions were explored, Boulder fine-tuned their approaches. For example, many students living in a trailer park were without access and hotspots were ineffective in these locations due to poor cell service. LiveWireNet was able to mount an antenna on the roof of a nearby building to blanket the trailer park with coverage.

The Results

At the start of the pandemic, BVSD had approximately 1000 students without home Internet access. Within a few weeks, they were able to connect all but a few students. The key to their success? According to Moore, it was two things: effectively identifying the students who had a need, and partnering with the local business community to deliver solutions.

To give the remaining students – who live in the  rural mountain parts of the district – connectivity options, the District took advantage of the FCC rule change allowing open wireless to be broadcast from the schools and installed WAPS on both mountain schools for “Drive-Up” Internet. 

ADVICE FOR SCHOOL DISTRICTS

  1. Find Creative Ways to Track Home Connectivity

Before COVID-19, BVSD  didn’t track home connectivity. When the pandemic hit, they sent out a survey which only received a 50% response rate.  School principals helped the school district gauge who needed access, and IT created paper packet materials on how to get connected to the Internet. Ultimately, the number one indicator for whether or not a student had adequate access was teacher reporting on which students were attending video conferencing. Teachers would then follow up with those students and connect them to the school district for support.  

  1. Find Partners Who Care

BVSD found that there was a big difference in corporate responsibility between different potential partners. Ultimately, their success was in no small part due to choosing an ISP who both cares about the community and sees the mutual benefit in a public-private partnership. It was a win-win scenario for both LiveWireNet and the school district – LiveWireNet gained access to a market to sell Internet they did not have before, and BVSD was able to provide free Internet to students who needed it.

  1. Keep Communicating with Families 

Throughout this process BVSD succeeded in educating families on their Internet connectivity options and engaged until the best solution was found to fit their needs. Whether it was through LiveWireNet, hot spots, or driving up for school parking lots access, BVSD didn’t relent until every student was connected for online education. 

“Can you imagine living in a world without Internet at home? How would you engage in a world that is almost completely digital?”
– Andrew Moore, CIO of Boulder Valley School District

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR SCHOOL DISTRICTS