"I like being able to see which websites students are going to and which sites were blocked. Family members can use the hotspots to connect as well. It’s a community service for us to offer this.”
“We shouldn’t make technology a barrier to education. [Blended learning] hasn’t been without its hiccups or hitting speedbumps, but in the long run it will really benefit the kids. Everything takes time.”
“There are math and reading programs that students can do online at home. This is fabulous for at-risk children to be able to do that and keep up.”
Beekmantown Central School District, a rural district of 2,070 students in upstate New York, was on a mission to be the most progressive educational institution in the area. When excess capital funds were earmarked for school Wi-Fi, Superintendent Dan Mannix knew he wanted to do more than just use it for administering tests; he wanted to harness the Internet to provide a world-class education for every student in his district.
Driven by an innovative mindset about learning and student engagement, Mannix and his staff would soon redefine the boundaries of the classroom and help students from all corners of the sprawling district reach their full potential.
Recognizing that students who feel personally invested in and connected with school will be able to achieve higher levels of success, the district committed to a goal Mannix calls “Connect 100.”
“We want 100 percent of our students to feel connected to Beekmantown in some way, whether through a relationship with a teacher or a program. We want our students to be running into school as opposed to running out.”
Dan Mannix, Superintendent of Beekmantown Central School District
In 2015, Beekmantown implemented several initiatives to meet that goal.
First, the district began offering free lunch and breakfast to all students, not just the 51 percent who qualified for the federal free and reduced-cost lunch program. It also instituted an Extended Learning Day program, funded through an Extended Learning Time grant, which seeks to expand learning opportunities beyond the normal classroom hours. And finally, the district committed to a digital literacy initiative, encouraging teachers to fully integrate technology into their classrooms and providing them with the most up-to-date technology.
But equipping the classrooms wasn’t the complete answer. Knowing that some students lived in remote or rural locations not served by Internet carriers, while others might not have Internet access at home for a variety of reasons, Beekmantown surveyed the students to get a better understanding of digital equity issues within the district. The findings showed that 30 percent of Beekmantown students lacked at-home Internet access. Even for students who had access at home, though, long bus rides to and from school or athletic events were cutting into that time. A digital literacy initiative would only be successful if all students had Internet access when they needed it and where they could use it most productively.
Beekmantown had a strong commitment to digital literacy, dedicated teachers and staff, and a bold plan. Now they just needed to find the right solution to make their plan a reality.
When Mannix attended the FETC Conference in 2015, the solution became clearer. After learning about the work Kajeet was doing with the Kajeet SmartSpot® devices and the innovative thinking behind SmartBus™ Wi-Fi technology, he was convinced Kajeet could help Beekmantown address both the problem of digital access and the district’s commitment to keeping students connected to school.
“Kajeet was the missing piece of the puzzle,” he says.
Gary Lambert, Beekmantown’s Director of 21st Century Learning, says the initiative to address digital equity issues began with the rollout of Kajeet SmartSpots, which students can sign out via an online form that alerts the tech support team to get the unit ready for the student’s use. The SmartSpots were met with immediate enthusiasm, and word of mouth soon spread so any student who needed Internet access now had an easy-to-use solution provided to them by the district.
But the SmartSpots were only the first step. To Lambert, the promise of Wi-Fi-outfitted buses seemed particularly relevant to the Beekmantown Central School District, which extends 110 square miles. Some students spend up to an hour on the bus just getting to and from school each day. What’s more, school-sponsored athletic events often require a commute of an hour and a half each way, leaving students working until late in the evening to get their homework done on game nights—and leaving them drained at school the next day.
Lambert wanted to help students get more out of that valuable bus time.
“Putting Wi-Fi on buses was a tangible way to solve a problem and provide opportunities for students that we hadn’t ever been able to before,” Lambert says. “It would also help us fulfill the mission of the Extended Learning Time grant. If you’re looking for an easy way to capitalize on a student’s time, buses are the answer.”
Beekmantown began by installing Kajeet SmartBus Wi-Fi on five school buses, prioritizing those with the longest runs. Once the program was underway, Kajeet recommended implementing a unified log-in and password for all district devices to reduce tech support needs and student frustrations. Soon students were finding it just as easy to get online on the road as it was at home or in school.
Because robust filtering and reporting features come standard with SmartBus, Beekmantown was also able to ensure that students were using Wi-Fi for its intended educational purpose. Lambert says the SmartBus filtering has been a great complement to the filtering the district already had in place.
We want access on the buses to mirror what students have access to in the classroom. Having the filtering available across our fleet of buses in a consistent manner lessens wasted bandwidth and improves the experience for all users.”
Gary Lambert, Director of 21st Century Learning of Beekmantown Central School District
Lambert also recognized the importance of publicizing the initiative and worked with Kajeet to design a decal for the SmartBus-equipped buses to let the community know the buses had Wi-Fi on board. Students—and other districts—quickly took notice of the innovative steps Beekmantown was taking. And it didn’t take long for the impact to be realized.
Veteran bus drivers immediately reported students were engaged and working on assignments during their commutes instead of getting into the kind of trouble, often arising from boredom. In fact, when it comes to discipline issues, the bus often represents one of the most challenging environments for many schools, but since the SmartBus program began, behavior incidents at Beekmantown have declined by 50 percent. Along with the other initiatives, including the free breakfast and lunch provision and the Extended Learning Day program, Beekmantown has also seen student attendance and achievement soar.
“What happens on the bus has a large impact on the rest of a student’s school day. We tend to look at buses only as vehicles, but they are always an extension of the classroom and the school environment,” says Lambert.
Last year Beekmantown celebrated a new milestone. For the first time, 100 percent of its senior class graduated. The attendance rate went up across the board, and disciplinary problems were slashed in half, even as the poverty rate in the area rose. Mannix and Lambert attribute this success to a combination of factors, one of which was the digital initiative and their partnership with Kajeet.
“Any district looking at 1:1 or BYOD would be doing students a disservice if they didn’t consider this—either the home-based Wi-Fi or the bus solution,” Lambert says. “If you’re trying to capture student attention and time, this is a way to bring access to them.”
The political response to what Beekmantown has done has been overwhelmingly positive, with stakeholders commenting that the district successfully found an economically viable solution for connecting all of their students. And the skeptics are now converts, impressed that Beekmantown is “taking it to the next level and literally allowing kids to go home with Internet access.”
This year Beekmantown is working to put Kajeet SmartBus on six more of its buses. The goal is to eventually outfit the entire fleet.
Mannix says the implementation has been remarkably smooth. He credits this in large part to the amount of research the team, and in particular, Lambert, did before jumping in. They took time to investigate, talked to districts all over the country, and compiled a list of best practices. Just like in the classroom, doing homework paid dividends.
And that experience is now paving the way for the future.
“In the future,” Mannix says, “this will be our norm. We will order buses with SmartBus just as we would any other specification.”