PHOENIX — Nearly $34 million in CARES Act money is going to be used to provide free Wi-Fi to students from kindergarten through community college. It’s part of an effort to even the playing field for families who just can’t afford internet at home. The problem is far from new but the solutions to bridging the digital divide at Phoenix-area schools is.
“It’s about making access available to students, it’s about removing inequities,” said Paul Ross with Phoenix College.
Ross is the brainchild behind the Phoenix Digital Education Connection Canopy, an idea put into motion after schools serving high poverty populations struggled to transition to online learning during the pandemic. On September 1, the canopy will begin delivering free Wi-Fi to potentially thousands of students.
“It brought awareness to where the gaps really existed, for a lot of people it went from being a number on a spreadsheet to being we’ve got real households, students who really don’t have access at home,” said Ross.
He’s talking about students like Greg Arzola, now studying cyber security at Phoenix College, and helping to make this program a reality alongside Ross as part of his internship. But in high school, his family struggled to make ends meet while his single mother cared for seven children.
“It was just really my mom taking care of us and we didn’t have a lot of extra money to spend on internet, it’s kind of like either paying the rent or just having internet access,” said Arzola who said he didn't have internet access at home in high school.
The solution looks like this, infrastructure for Wi-Fi access is now installed across seven locations, casting a four-square-mile net providing internet coverage for both the Cartwright and Alhambra school districts.
“With this, I know that children will have more benefits, better opportunities than I did, and have a better time succeeding in school and getting a better education,” said Arzola.
“That’s going to benefit our students for years and years to come,” said Cartwright School District CFO Victoria Farrar.
Farrar says the network comes with security measures to protect children using it, giving one of the poorest districts a hand up towards a brighter future.
“This is really laying the foundation for what we know our students need, and now we have the tools and ability to make sure we sustain it going forward,” said Farrar.
It’s a partnership of schools, the City of Phoenix, and Phoenix College that will eventually add the connection canopy over 13 area districts in the next few years.