Challenges surrounding technology access remain significant obstacles today, and states often struggle to help students find internet connectivity outside of school. But in Minnesota, a new grant program is changing that.
The Internet Broadband Expansion for Minnesota Students grants help provide students with the high-speed internet connections needed to complete homework and access other online learning opportunities.
The new grant funding will allow districts to equip buses with wireless hotspots, enabling students to complete homework while commuting. The funding also will be used to purchase wireless hotspots, data cards, and other mobile broadband devices that students will be able to check out for use at home.
“Too many Minnesota students are on the wrong side of the digital divide. These grants will help level the playing field for students in Greater Minnesota by providing them the same educational opportunities as their friends and family in the cities,” said Lt. Governor Tina Smith. “Governor Dayton and I will continue advocating for high speed, affordable, reliable internet access until all Minnesota students and families are connected.”
(Next page: How individual districts will benefit from the grants)
In 2016, the Dayton-Smith Administration worked with the Minnesota Legislature to invest $500,000 in grants for school-based high-speed internet.
Administrators from grant recipient Lake of the Woods School District said students spend more than two hours a day riding the bus to and from school. Students participating in extracurricular activities often have even longer bus rides–a common experience for students in rural districts across Minnesota and the nation.
The grant could only support 12 of 33 applicants, with each recipient receiving up to $50,000. Six of the recipients have partnered with mobile internet provider Kajeet.
“Part of our district has high-speed fiber, and part has nothing. But, with high poverty rates, people can’t always afford internet,” said Matt Grose, superintendent for Deer River Public Schools, one of the grant recipients. “Now we provide internet connectivity for homework to kids in our district who didn’t have access at home.”
All applicants applied for the first grant, “Broadband Expansion and Off-Campus Learning,” which aims to enable student access to learning materials available on the internet through a mobile broadband connection, such as a Wi-Fi hotspot. If eligible, applicants could apply to a second grant, “School Bus Internet Access,” designed to make internet access available on school buses, enabling students to complete homework while commuting.
Deer River connected its entire bus fleet, as some students spend more than an hour commuting to and from school.
“It’s a long time to be on the bus, which breeds trouble and wasted time. This [Kajeet] program is a natural extension of our student device initiatives,” said Grose. “We’re taking advantage of student time spent on the bus.”
“Rural students are at a disadvantage to their urban peers if their internet connectivity is lacking. And providing educational filtering keeps students on task to help them succeed,” said Daniel Neal, CEO and founder of Kajeet. “We’re thrilled that Minnesota is stepping up to alleviate the growing Homework Gap as technology use inside and outside the classroom increases.”
Funding priority is given to applicants demonstrating a combination of students from low-income families and with long bus routes. Low-income homes with children are four times more likely to be without broadband than their middle or upper-income counterparts, according to the Pew Research Center.