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Canon City Bus WiFi

Cañon City Schools Fremont RE-1 is a K-12 district covering Cañon City, Colorado, with 33 percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. Like many school districts, Cañon City has been dealing with the challenge of keeping up with today’s rapidly advancing technological environment. To try to get ahead of this problem, Superintendent George Welsh spearheaded a tech visioning committee in 2017 to explore options for implementing a mobile 1:1 technology program. The committee was tasked with determining what the needs are, what the program would look like, and how the devices would be used.

As part of the process, the committee surveyed parents, community members, staff, and students to get a better understanding of the homework burden, how students use their afterschool time, and how many students had (or lacked) Internet access at home. They knew that moving to a mobile 1:1 program would create a different kind of homework problem: With more digital resources and assignments, off-campus access to the Internet is critical.

While their survey showed that 80 percent of households had Internet access in some form, that left another 20 percent without access. But even for those with access at home, many students involved in extracurricular activities like sports and band only have time to work on their homework during bus rides to and from games and events or face staying up late after returning home from their extracurriculars.

Cañon City Director of Technology Shaun Kohl, who sits on the board of the Colorado Association of Leaders in Educational Technology (CALET), a subgroup of the Colorado Association of School Executives (CASE), serves on the Cañon City visioning committee and turned to his peers on the CALET board to learn how other districts have rolled out 1:1 programs. What he discovered was how Wi-Fi-equipped school buses help minimize the impact of the Homework Gap. He realized this was the essential missing piece.

“Wi-Fi on buses was going to be crucial,” he says. “For some kids—between school and taking buses home in the evenings or going to those extracurricular events—that’s the only time they’re going to have Internet access.”

Wi-Fi on Board

In August of 2018, Cañon City kicked off its connected bus initiative with the Kajeet SmartBus™ solution, which has been hard-installed on three of the district’s activities buses. Kohl explains that those buses also handle routes, primarily used at the high school level, where the 1:1 initiative was rolled out first. By equipping these buses with Wi-Fi, the school district could ensure students who participate in band, football, choir, softball, or other extracurricular activities have the opportunity to do their homework while they’re on the buses and traveling to and from other cities for events. “If kids are at a wrestling meet all day waiting on their match, they still have the opportunity to do their work while they’re there,” Kohl notes.

The process of installation went smoothly, as the school’s mechanic was able to install the SmartBus routers using the provided instructions. Kohl adds that the working relationship and responsiveness of Kajeet has been “fantastic.” The district is now evaluating what other buses in the fleet of 20-25 buses might benefit from the SmartBus solution.

Fueling Student Achievement

Providing filtered Wi-Fi connectivity for those students from the 20 percent of households without connectivity is a key component to closing the Homework Gap. Daniel Coppa, Cañon City’s Instructional Technology Coordinator, applied for the Kajeet Homework Gap Grant, which he used to purchase ten Kajeet SmartSpot® mobile hotspots in the fall of 2018 to coincide with the 1:1 program rollout at the high school. Coppa says that the handful of students without Internet access at home have already commented on how critical these SmartsSpot devices have been for them. One senior told Kohl, “I can graduate on time because I have the ability to get my work done on time.”

In the next year, the district plans to order additional SmartSpot devices, and the district will begin rolling them out at several of the middle schools. Because middle school students will take their Chromebooks home next school year, Kohl expects there to be an even greater demand for SmartSpot devices at the middle school level.

The Purposeful Use of Technology

Kohl acknowledges that one of the concerns parents expressed during the visioning committee discussions was over the amount of time students spend in front of screens. But when it comes to technology in school, he emphasizes, “We’re trying to make it a purposeful use. For most kids, their early experience with technology is with touchscreens, playing games, listening to music, and watching videos. But we’re looking at it from a different perspective as a tool of education—as well as recognizing when it’s appropriate not to use devices.”

From an instructional standpoint, Coppa says the message to teachers is that there’s a process they need to think about it when it comes to using devices in class: First, consider your instructional and learning objectives; then think about what teaching techniques will help you get there. Only then can the teacher determine whether or not the Chromebook is the appropriate device for the job.

For this reason, they emphasize implementing professional development for the teachers first, before rolling out the devices to students. This was fundamental to the success of their program. Cañon City teachers understand that when they decide to use technology, the instructional piece must be engaging, purposeful, and rigorous.

An Eye Toward the Future

The tech visioning committee still meets on a monthly basis, recognizing that they will always need to look forward as technology in education continues to change.

“We’re still pretty fresh with our 1:1 initiative, but we planned this year as our learning year, and we have the same mentality moving forward,” Coppa says. “We don’t know what we don’t know, but we’re going to try to have the best plan in place to adapt to any changes that come about.”

The visioning committee has expanded to include not just district personnel but community partners with technology companies in the region who offer internship programs for high school students. As the committee evolves, they hope to set up an innovation center and introduce even more opportunities for students. Already, Kohl says, “Opportunities have opened up that we didn’t even realize would happen.”

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