At Palm Springs Unified School District (PSUSD), educators envisioned a new kind of school day. An environment in which students came to class ready to interact with teachers–and dive more deeply into their studies–after using technology to learn at their own pace at home.
Bringing that vision to life required finding a solution for the technology gap their students faced. More than 86% of PSUSD students were on free or reduced-price lunches-and the staff knew that likely meant that most of them also lacked internet or computers at home.
"We believe heavily in mobile platforms here in Palm Springs," said William Carr, director of technology and information systems for the district. "As we started building up our mobile environment … we came across some problems and struggles. We realized a huge chunk of our students did not have broadband at home."
Before the district could extend the school day into home learning and expect all students to participate, they needed to find a way to solve the connectivity issue some students had outside of school.
"Our Superintendent Sandy Lyon, Ph.D., and our assistant superintendent of educational services were very focused on ensuring all of our students had access to their online educational resources," Carr said. "We knew we wanted something that was secure, something that was cost-effective, that was easy to set up, deploy and manage. After doing research, we whittled it down to a solution using T-Mobile HotSpots."
A partnership to bridge the gap
T-Mobile Education Sales Experts visited the campus and offered the district a partnership that would allow students to connect while at home.
"The school district business is different than the private sector," Carr said. "We really look for long-term partners and building trust is key, because we're not cutthroat like business. We're more sociable and personable." T-Mobile's proposed solution-using HotSpots to solve students' lack of internet-led PSUSD to agree to a pilot program. The district said T-Mobile's willingness to truly partner with the district on a solve, and the Dedicated Care Line were also factors.
"We started with 10 HotSpots and went around the whole valley … every single school site, every community, every trailer park and every apartment complex where we were worried about coverage. We then reported our findings to the cabinet and the board, who were very excited about this pilot," Carr said.
Unlike other providers, including AT&T and Verizon, T-Mobile could ensure coverage to the areas PSUSD had concerns about. And, when the district wanted an even stronger signal, T-Mobile was able to make modifications to specific cell towers to provide increased connectivity.
"We really believe that's a key differentiator for us," said Brad Cantrell, T-Mobile representative. "Within 48 hours of sending the information to my network and technology group, I have a response along with their action items."
T-Mobile's willingness to work alongside the district was a game-changer, Carr said. "T-Mobile made it happen. We went from 10 devices to 1,510 devices relatively fast, and they met all our requirements."
Creating a 'level playing field'
Being able to use the internet at home removed one of the key barriers to student success, according to Mike Swize, Ph.D., assistant superintendent of educational services.
"What you're talking about is closing the gap," said Bernie Marez, principal at Raymond Cree Middle School. "We're closing the gap between all students … everyone has a level playing field. They have access to what they need."
Having access to a HotSpot means that seventh-grader Serenity Dill is able to work on internet-dependent homework, like watching videos and reading online assignments-without needing to travel to her grandfather's house for internet access.
"I use it at home on a daily basis," she said. "Most of our homework is online, so we turn it in through [Google] Classroom."
T-Mobile worked with the district to set up Web Guard to help block or filter inappropriate web page content (e.g., social media, adult content). The district also offers training for students-and their parents-on how to use both the HotSpots and the school-provided Chromebooks they rolled out this year. They now have a 1:1 policy, meaning every student has a Chromebook they use at home and in the classroom.
"We believe heavily that for the student to succeed, it's not just the student and the teacher, it is the family, the house, the environment and the community," Carr said. "If a parent can't help because of their lack of training or experience with technology, then it's a disservice to the students."
To help keep parents involved, the district created a Parent Engagement Center to ensure they also understand the technology available. This program has allowed parents to feel more involved with their children's education-they can make sure their kids are able to connect with teachers or find answers to their questions online.
"The parents who don't speak English as a first language were nervous about helping with homework before," Carr said. "However, they can still make sure the student has a safe, quiet environment to get online and that their technology is charged and properly cared for. We've changed the role of some parents, so now there's a new way they can support their child's education."
And, the program has given the district data on usage and student habits that allows teachers to help in more targeted ways when students need a little extra assistance.
"It's about personalized learning," Carr said. "Every student is unique."
Reaping the benefits
As the program took effect, educators noticed measurable changes on achievement scores, but also in areas that are harder to quantify.
"One of the things we've noticed from our 1:1 deployment is, data aside, the impact on the climate and culture of the school," Marez said. "You start navigating the campus and you just feel it at lunchtime. There's this calm and focus. This is really becoming a learning center."
While the improved campus culture is impressive, Carr said, the statistics are even better:
▪ Teachers gained 2.5 hours in the classroom each week because students can work on technology-based projects at home.
▪ The students themselves are now accessing online educational programs 6.5 hours a week on average (up from 2.5 hours when they only used computers in the classroom).
▪ In the online-based Language Arts and Math program, middle school students showed a 4% average increase in math and a 2% average increase in language arts.
▪ Raymond Cree Middle School has seen a reduction of at least 50% in students involved in any type of trouble.
▪ District-wide attendance is up 3%.
The district has the flexibility to add both data and HotSpots to their plan as needed to help more students. They've also moved all staff voice lines from Verizon to T-Mobile.
"This partnership between T-Mobile and the district is going to allow us to realize our vision for students," Marez said. "To provide students with access and opportunity as they grow and transition into 21st century learners."