Hot spots enable low-income students to do homework

Vancouver Public Schools, aided by grant from Sprint, gives devices to families who need them

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter

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It’s been a couple of months since Barbara Alderman canceled her home internet connection. It just got to be too expensive, she said.

It became a problem, however, when her grandchildren, who attend Discovery Middle School, came home with school-issued iPads — and online homework.

“I would have to take them to the library,” she said Wednesday.

It’s a familiar refrain heard by Vancouver Public Schools officials as they provide tablets or laptops to every student to take home beginning in third grade. Esmy Farias-Govea, who runs Discovery Middle School’s Family and Community Resource Center, said low-income children without internet access are left unable to use their school-issued devices, leaving them unable to do homework. This year, however, Vancouver Public Schools hopes to eliminate that barrier by providing Wi-Fi hot spots, small mobile devices that allow users to connect to the internet.

“It’s exciting we’re able to offer both,” Farias-Govea said.

Vancouver Public Schools this year received a four-year ConnectED grant from Sprint to buy 1,000 hot spots for low-income families. The district paid for the devices — about $97,000 plus tax — and Sprint will cover four years of internet access, valued at about $1.92 million. Students and their parents will be able to use the devices, so long as they are in an area with cellular coverage. (The hot spots connect directly to cell towers; no phone is required.)

“It has the possibility to help the entire family,” said Steve Bratt, the district’s director of technology infrastructure and operations.

About half the district’s students receive free or reduced-price meals, a mark of poverty, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. At Discovery Middle School, that rate is 72 percent.

“Sometimes families may not be socioeconomically able to pay for internet,” Chief Digital Officer Christina Iremonger said. “Where food is a consideration, they want to eat first.”

Iremonger is optimistic that improved internet access will help students take advantage of what teachers say are some of the key advantages of having iPads or computers — the ability for students do independent research at home, as well as to collaborate with and learn from each other online.

“This is the world our students have grown up in,” Iremonger said. “They interact with information differently than previous generations. It furthers their ability to learn more deeply.”

As for Alderman, she hopes the small black box she collected at the school’s library this week will help make homework easier for her grandchildren.

“They won’t be so stressed out,” Alderman said.