Dallas ISD’s cell tower pilot is a worthy experiment to close the digital divide

School districts learned the hard way from a year of disrupted and disjointed remote learning that the digital divide is a major impediment to academic achievement, particularly to children from impoverished backgrounds.

Districts found that internet access away from school classrooms may be limited to a parent’s smartphone, simply not readily available or prohibitively expensive for some families. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas estimates that roughly 42% of Dallas households do not have high-speed internet. Many of those households have school-age children, so a remarkable number of students lose internet access when the school day ends.

Enter Dallas ISD with an innovative $4.5 million pilot program to erect five cell towers to extend the district’s internet network for free to help students study at home. It is part of a three-pronged connectivity strategy that includes district-funded mobile hotspots and internet service contracts with traditional commercial providers for students whose families lack high-speed internet at home.

The first tower started service at Lincoln High School in late December for about 50 students. When the other towers are completed and running, students who live in the neighborhoods around Roosevelt, Spruce, South Oak Cliff and Pinkston high schools — about 5,000 students within slightly more than a mile radius of the schools — could have Wi-Fi access at home to the district’s internet network. The district would give each household a password-protected receiver to connect a laptop or other digital device in the house, giving students the same access that they would have in the classroom.

When the pandemic hit, Dallas struggled to get students set up at home. Many districts allowed students to take home laptops and tablets but then discovered that these students didn’t have internet access, unlike children in many suburban districts who have computers, laptops and other digital devices at home.

We want students in the classroom full-time but see this effort as a potentially powerful educational tool. The district’s decision to provide internet access broadens learning opportunities for poor students, many of whom are students of color and English language learners. And over time, greater connectivity might be an answer to snow days when buses aren’t running.

Dallas has plans for remote-learning options next year and Texas has seven authorized full-time online programs that allow students from across the state to enroll in schools well outside their home district. Dallas and other school districts also expect dollars from the federal $1.9 trillion recovery law that they could use to improve remote learning and access for students.

Too many in poor communities are on the wrong side of the divide. Ultimately, this effort must show cost-effective results. Dallas ISD, however, deserves credit for recognizing that the status quo is unacceptable and for exploring a way to narrow the divide.

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About: Benz Seo