As school districts across the country struggle to provide students safe learning environments amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many are looking for broadband solutions that can bridge the digital divide and support new remote and hybrid learning models. To meet those challenges, the city of Pittsburg has partnered with USD 250 and Motorola to provide area students with access to high-speed Internet service.
Funded by money from the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARK) taskforce and the Broadband Partnership Agreement Grant (BPAG), the city of Pittsburg and Pittsburg Community Schools worked together to create DragonNet, a high-speed broadband network. Local students can now access online lessons, stream video, and access other data-rich programming.
“The partners focused on their areas of expertise,” said Jay Byers, Pittsburg Deputy City Manager. “USD 250 provides and manages the programming and content, connectivity to the students, and access to the district’s network. The city maintains the external infrastructure and connectivity to the district. Motorola provides the cellular technology and network. KanREN provides the internet. The State of Kansas Broadband Office provided most of the funding. We needed two new towers to ensure coverage, and the City Commission approved an additional $100K toward the project.”
Brad Hanson, Assistant Superintendent for Pittsburg USD 250, said that the pandemic has shed light on the growing digital divide in our country, but it did not create the problem.
“We’ve had previous conversations with the city about this maybe being a project that we would be interested in putting together because we know there is a need,” Hanson said. “We’ve long been aware of the inequalities created by a lack of consistent, at-home internet access across our student body, which is essential for day-to-day learning, as well as the completion of research projects and papers that may be assigned as homework. We were not a one-to-one school district prior to the pandemic, and so I think a lot of our families still think ‘well we don’t really need this unless our kids go remote.’ And what we’re trying to remind them is…there’s lots of ways to access instructional resources outside of school time…this gives them the ability to get into their Canvas websites and look at their teacher’s resources.”
Byers said a private LTE network can be used for a variety of purposes ranging from serving the students in the community to improving public safety.
“The city currently uses cellular phone connections to support remote data connections since it is costly to connect these locations with wire or fiber,” Byers said. “These sites typically require only small amounts of data, so the private LTE could replace them. The cellular system could also be used to read meters remotely. Our police and fire vehicles currently use cellular connections to access important data, and the new system could at least represent a backup. Also, we can connect cameras to the network to allow us to see activity at our major intersections. All of this would improve public safety.”
According to Byers, there has been a great deal of research and analysis indicating that broadband access makes a major difference in the performance of students in both the short and long terms.
“DragonNet is intended to provide internet for K-12 educational purposes for those students who otherwise have difficulty acquiring adequate connectivity,” Byers said. “Internet access has been identified as a significant factor in student achievement, so allowing these students to have quality service puts them on a level playing field with other students.”
Hanson said the service has the capacity to serve 490 families with their home devices.
“We knew upfront that we had kids that didn’t have quality Internet service,” Hanson said. “Then when we surveyed last spring after COVID hit, we found that we had about 20% that indicated to us that they did not have good quality Internet service. We’ve had about 180 applications, so not quite half of what we have capacity for. We’ve approved 140 of those families and the majority of those families have picked up their devices and they are online with our system. So bottom line is we’ve got room to grow.”
Hanson said this is a huge thing for the Pittsburg community.
“We’ve got lots of kids who would not have had good quality Internet service who now have good quality Internet service,” Hanson said. “So, we’re excited about it.”