School District Bridges Rural Internet Gap With School Bus Wi-Fi

School District Bridges Rural Internet Gap With School Bus Wi-Fi

News photo by Julie Riddle Jasmine Turner, a grade 10 student at Alcona Community Schools, works on a story using WiFi on an after-school bus on Tuesday.

LINCOLN — When Alcona County students boarded school buses this fall, they took advantage of newly installed wireless internet, designed to make hour-long commutes more bearable.

The tech upgrade also helps kids succeed in the classroom, said Donald Neuenfeldt, transportation manager for Alcona Community Schools.

With 60% of students in the district lacking reliable internet access at home, the tech-ready buses offer more than just a chance to watch the latest video or message friends, said Neuenfeldt.

The new internet access turns the buses into a learning space where children can catch up on failing grades or outpace their classmates.

According to a study of rural schools in Michigan by researchers at Michigan State University, upper-class students with limited internet access outside of school score lower in grades and scores on standardized tests and are less likely to attend the university.

In rural school districts — where bus drivers pick up an average of eight students per square mile, compared to 37 per square mile in non-rural areas, according to the report — long runs on wired internet buses provide service that many homes can’t, says Neuenfeldt.

“When they get off the bus, they don’t have internet,” he said. “They have nothing.”

Jasmine Turner, a 10th grader at Alcona, takes advantage of her hour and a quarter commute to get home to write or listen to music on the internet.

“That’s really good,” she smiles, offering insight into a story she writes just for fun.

Boarding the bus at 6:50 a.m. each day, she uses a few bus rides to sleep, but the bus’s internet access helps her and other children not waste all that passenger time, said Turner.

Some children in Alcona County take the bus for two hours each way, said Dan O’Connor, superintendent of Alcona Community Schools.

This long distance between home and school frustrates some parents who would like to be able to let their children participate in sporting or social events at school.

Mindful of these estranged relatives, the district selects sports and clubs with transportation concerns in mind, O’Connor said.

An on-campus medical clinic and mental health workers keep those services nearby so parents can get help for their children without having to navigate transportation barriers, he said.

However, careful planning cannot shorten long rural bus journeys – and, since students have to devote this time to and from school, they might as well use it productively, O’Connor said.

A grant from the federal Emergency Connectivity Fund covered the cost of WiFi, which the district connected to software designed to keep students internet safe on buses.

If schools were to go virtual again, wired buses could serve as mobile Wi-Fi stations, moving to central locations where families could congregate to connect their electronics, O’Connor said.

Students can also access bus Wi-Fi on the way to sporting events, a few hours away, he said.

Some students use Internet access to do their school work. Others use it to chat with friends or relax.

Even when students aren’t using WiFi to enhance their studies, drivers report fewer discipline issues with onboard WiFi, O’Connor said.

“You put 60 kids on a bus with not much else to do, it can lead to bad decisions,” he said.

A quieter ride provides a significant benefit as the district, like other areas, reports a shortage of bus drivers and needs to convince people to consider becoming replacement drivers.

Students shouldn’t spend all day in front of screens, and teachers deliberately plan classroom lessons that ensure students connect with the real world, O’Connor said.

Yet the doors to education are opened wider when students can connect to the multitude of online tools available to teachers, and wired buses make that a little more possible, he said.

The school district, like many others in the area, provides laptops that each student can take with them on long trips to and from school.

Such technology is great, but “They’re no good if the student doesn’t have the Internet,” O’Connor said.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, or on Twitter @jriddleX.

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