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How a WiFi Pilot Program Is Helping Students in the Rio Grande Valley

Reynaldo Leaños Jr.
Selene Moreno sits on the school bus, checking the internet on her phone. Her home doesn't have internet connection.

From Texas Standard:

Selene Moreno is a senior at Benito Juarez-Abraham Lincoln High School in La Joya, Texas. She says she’s looking forward to graduation.

“I’m planning to become a physical therapist after I graduate from high school and I’m planning on going to Texas A&M,” Moreno says.

Moreno is petite and soft-spoken. She’s also ambitious – taking college courses and a bunch of AP classes. That can be especially difficult because she doesn’t have Internet access at home.

Some parts of Texas are at the epicenter of what's called “the digital divide.” That’s the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet, and those who don’t.

The Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas found the two metropolitan areas in the country with the lowest broadband access are in the Rio Grande Valley. Those most impacted by the digital divide may be students in the Valley from low-income families, like Moreno.

  Moreno does have some access to the Internet, but she says it isn’t enough.

“I do have a cellphone and that has Internet, but sometimes it’s really slow and it’s hard to catch up because it takes time to get it done,” she says. “I wish I had fast Internet to get it done faster.”

She often finds herself having to work on projects until 2 or 3 a.m.

“I remember one time I stayed up to cry,” Moreno says. “I worked through my tears to stay up late. And sometimes I would come sleepless to school and I wouldn’t be able to concentrate the next day.”

Moreno's story isn’t unique.

Clem Garza is La Joya Independent School District's Director of Instructional Resources and Technology.

“There’s parents that sit, take lawn chairs, outside a campus so they can access the web,” Garza says. “There are students that sit outside by the fence on the grass so they can access the web to do homework. And that tugged at me and that visual never left my mind.”

So Garza came up with a plan.

“We equipped the buses with routers and antennas so that our students are able to access Internet on the school buses,” Garza says.

Only two of the district's buses have Internet access right now.

Equipping the buses cost a little more than $4,000. But this is not an out-of-pocket expense for the district. Verizon and other businesses are paying for it.

Juarez Lincoln High School teacher Karim Briseno says the program is also helping teachers. They now feel better about assigning projects that require Internet access. Although most families don’t have the Internet at home, kids do ride the bus.

“If they spend that much time, from 30 to 45 minutes on the bus,” Briseno says, “I’m pretty sure they can use that time in order for them to do research, homework [and] communicate with teachers [any] questions they might have.”

Briseno says she hopes the program will soon be accessible to more students.

“I think every bus should have Wifi,” Briseno says.

An expansion is in the works, but first La Joya ISD needs to look at the data from the pilot program.

“How many users logged on, what types of sites, not necessarily individual sites, but let's say how many educational sites were accessed, how many social sites were accessed,” Garza says. “We’re able to use that and then to see are they mainly streaming, are they downloading, uploading? What are the students doing?”

Garza says that information will go to the school board. It’ll be up to the board to implement the program. One thing that will help her case, Garza has already found funding for 20 of the 261 buses in the district.

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