Beekmantown Central School District serves over 2,000 students in rural upstate New York. The district is committed to supporting its students with the technology tools they need to succeed, including the 7% of its student population without adequate Internet access at home.
Five years ago, while in the research phase prior to rolling out their 1:1 device program, Gary Lambert, Director of 21st Century Learning for Beekmantown, met Kajeet at the Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC). He soon realized the student connectivity solutions provided by Kajeet would be an excellent way to address the district’s Homework Gap.
“We wanted very early on to address the digital equity issues that we all knew existed in our district,” Lambert said in a recent STN webinar hosted by Kajeet.
Beekmantown started with creating a SmartSpot® device check out program, running parallel to their 1:1 program providing Chromebooks to grades 3-12. SmartSpot® devices are personal WiFi hotspots enabling students to connect to safe, CIPA-compliant Internet.
Beekmantown’s program enables students without Internet access at home to check out one of the district’s 60 devices from the Media or EdTech Center for up to two-weeks at a time, so that they can get their online assignments completed and keep up with their peers.
Seeing success with their Wi-Fi hotspot program, a year later Beekmantown decided to tackle their next connectivity project: the school bus. They outfitted their 42 school buses with the Kajeet SmartBus™ solution, a Wi-Fi router allowing around 60 students to access safe, filtered Internet while traveling on the bus.
“We decided that the school bus was really nothing more than an extension of the classroom,” Lambert explained. Having received the Extended Learning Time Grant, district officials decided to use these funds towards outfitting their entire 42-bus fleet with SmartBus™ routers over the following two years. This would afford students the opportunity to use their bus commutes, which could be as long as an hour to 1.5 hours, to complete their online coursework that they might not be able to at home.
To evaluate the efficacy of this technology initiative, Beekmantown identified and tracked three main success metrics: student attendance, student discipline, and student achievement.
“We saw positive changes in [all] three areas,” Lambert shared, acknowledging that “we can’t attribute positive change to any one specific effort… however, we also can’t [conclude] that giving students access to high-quality learning materials on the bus and extending their opportunities did not contribute to that.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation in March 2020, school districts across the nation were forced to pivot rapidly to distance learning. Fortunately, Beekmantown Central School District was poised to make the transition as painless and smooth for their students as possible.
“We did not know we were preparing for an instructional war that we… were going to have to fight, but Kajeet was a partner in our arsenal for that,” Lambert said.
Since COVID-19 closures began, nearly all of Beekmantown’s SmartSpot® devices have been consistently checked out by students who need Wi-Fi to access their distance learning materials.
“Without that partnership with Kajeet, I don’t know how I would be sleeping at night right now trying to figure out how we are going to address the needs of those students,” Lambert said.
Lambert shared that instead of dealing with student connectivity issues, district leaders have been able to focus on supporting teachers and staff in the instruction students are receiving while learning remotely.
“Of all of the different… logistical elements surrounding remote teaching and learning, the Kajeet one has been one of the smoothest ones we’ve had to deal with because it just works.”
Since their students were supported with the connectivity they needed during this crisis, Beekmantown was able to lend a helping hand to their neighbors who weren’t so lucky.
On April 10, 2020, Beekmantown delivered three of its WiFi-equipped school buses to Peru Central School District, a district of nearly 2,000 students located about 15 miles south of Beekmantown.
“[We] definitely understood we had some pockets where kids did not have access to the internet,” said Thomas Palmer, superintendent of Peru.
Peru has since been able to use these school buses to create community WiFi hotspots around their school district, which students are able to visit and connect to in order to complete their distance learning schoolwork.
To learn more about how the SmartBus™ solution enables school buses to work as community WiFi hotspots while maintaining social distancing requirements, check out this success story about how Austin ISD used this to support their students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This gesture was done in the spirit of cooperation between our districts in order to help Peru students and families who do not have Internet connections,” Lambert shared. It serves as a touching example of the great things that can happen when districts and communities are connected – in more ways than one.
While they celebrate the hard work of their teachers, staff, and students who have continued to make learning possible amidst the pandemic, Beekmantown leaders have an eye to the future. Through this trial, they have learned how vital emergency preparedness is – and how student connectivity is a key component.
“Moving forward, if we don’t – as school officials and thoughtful individuals – provide for or, at least address, the conversation of inequity, then we are doing students much more of a disservice than before because the need is heightened,” said Lambert.
As conversations in the education world shift to the fall 2020-21 academic year, schools and districts will need to consider backup and connectivity plans as they determine whether the return to school will be traditional, virtual, or, most likely, a blended approach. In any case, establishing a technology program that is suited to serve the needs of underprivileged students will be an increasing focus. As the world grapples with the possibilities another virus wave or other local or global crisis, students’ need for Internet will only intensify.
As Lambert explained, “it’s an investment preventing disaster from striking before it does.”
Feature photo courtesy of Gary Lambert, @Dir21KLearning, on Twitter.
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