Ohio’s OneCommunity brings broadband to schools and private homes

ohio-equitySince 2003, OneCommunity of Cleveland has been connecting and enabling public benefit organizations across the state like schools, government agencies, healthcare, museums, and libraries with next-generation fiber optics. And lately, they’re begun working with schools to identify private homes that lack sufficient bandwidth.

Lev Gonick, chief executive, said OneCommunity was born out of the need to elevate Northeastern Ohio’s “Rust Belt” status by infusing the region with faster and more accessible Internet. “Northeast Ohio was looking for a roadmap to reinvent itself,” said Gonick, who at the time was vice president and chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University, one of OneCommunity’s founding partners.

“Community leaders embraced the idea that whatever our future might be,” he adds, “fiber optics would [provide] a very important underlying and enabling infrastructure to get us there.”

To date, the organization has built about 2,500 route miles of its own fiber that currently connect 800 different institutions to the internet, and to one another, at ultra-high broadband speeds.

Next page: How it supports a district one-to-one program

To do its part in that mission, OneCommunity handles all of the design work for the fiber optic installations and then partners with third parties (that manage the construction work) to implement the fiber that gets laid across Northeastern Ohio. A nonprofit organization, OneCommunity also has a portfolio of programming activities designed to train, educate, and enable the individuals who use those networks.

Signing Them Up

According to Gonick, OneCommunity currently works with 800 organizations (i.e., “subscribers”) that pay for the bandwidth access and/or fiber connection. On the K-12 education side, the group connects about 50 different schools systems that work through partner consortiums to acquire the access. “Those consortia pay us for their fiber and they, in turn, connect the schools to the fiber,” Gonick explains. “The consortia then charge the schools for their [usage].”

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District is a OneCommunity partner that turned to the organization for help supporting a one-to-one Nook initiative. Funded by a local philanthropic agency, the initiative found OneCommunity providing the increased Internet access — so students could have up to date e-textbooks on their devices — along with training and support. In addition, OneCommunity has provided videoconferencing technologies and teacher training/support at the district’s early college program, John Hay School. New at the time, the school was “poor performing,” according to Gonick. In 2014, John Hay School’s early college program was ranked as the top science school in the state of Ohio, based on state graduation test results. “All of the school’s curriculum leverages the broadband network,” said Gonick, “so the [district] considers us one of their important champions and ambassadors.”

Right now, OneCommunity is working on a 7-city collaboration that will support science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM) education, with a primary focus on computer science. “These seven cities very much like what they see and hear taking place in Cleveland, and have asked us to help organize this multi-city collaboration,” Gonick explains. “This upcoming school year, we’ll be piloting a multi-city, STEM education [effort] that’s focused on computer science.”

Next page: Bringing broadband into homes

Creating Accessibility

Also within the K-12 space, OneCommunity’s Connect Your Community initiative was a 3-year project focused on bridging the digital divide. Through Connect Your Community, OneCommunity worked with households that were below the poverty line, providing them with training, equipment, and broadband access. Gonick points to The Pew Internet & American Life Project as proof that a digital divide exists in America, especially among people over 65, those with little education, with household incomes of $25,000 or less, people with disabilities, African Americans, and those in rural areas.

“These are precisely the groups that we serve with Connect Your Community,” Gonick said, “through neighbor-to-neighbor programs across seven diverse communities.”

Bill Callahan, director of Connect Your Community 2.0 (the new iteration of Connect Your Community, whose federal grant ran out in 2013), said the program served about 26,000 households across eight localities. “A high number of our activities were done in cooperation with school district programs,” said Callahan. “We had a significant number of parents who were trained by the school districts, for example, and who then served in classes that were oriented toward digital-parenting engagement.”

The parents who were involved in the program were self-selected and typically learned about the opportunity via school-generated publicity. The focus was on parent engagement with the school district, including 20 hours of training on general skills plus whatever portal the district was using to engage with parents, Callahan explains. While the federal grant has since ended, Connect Your Community 2.0 is now developing additional resources and running as a collaborative effort among partners (including OneCommunity).

Crossing the Digital Divide

Looking back on OneCommunity’s track record over the last 12 years, Gonick said the effort could definitely be replicated in other communities and districts across the nation. To create the most impacts and get the best results, however, he said multiple organizations, constituents, and districts must be willing to get behind the initiative and support it over time.

“We’ve learned that it definitely takes a village to sort through all of the technical, pedagogical, and student-related services, and to bring the technology community to the planning progress,” said Gonick. “These steps are vitally important to the success and for building a coalition. But in a world where high-speed broadband is no longer a ‘nice to have,’ but a ‘must have’ formula, the effort is definitely worth it.”

Callahan also sees the OneCommunity-Connect Your Community model as one that could be replicated by other districts, although he said any such effort would require adequate, ongoing funding and support. “Getting low-income homes connected and trained on how to use the Internet – and how to use a district’s online tools – requires a systematic and reliable approach,” said Callahan. “It can’t be solved through an intervention with just a few hundred parents.”

Bridget McCrea is a contributing writer for eSchool News.