Arizona broadband project brings rural schools into 21st century

Posted at 8:15 PM, May 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-16 23:18:25-04

At Congress Elementary School in Yavapai County, school administrators say their internet service used to be so bad, it went out entirely every time it rained. When it was working, it would freeze up when multiple classrooms tried to get online.

IT director Suzanne Sims says their connection speed was "1.5 megabits [per second], which is less than I think anybody has at their house currently, and we had over 100 people sharing that bandwidth."

"They were limited, and we don't want them to be limited," said Stan Goligoski from the Yavapai County Superintendent's office. He is coordinating with the county's school district to obtain grants to install fiber internet connections.

In the meantime, Congress Elementary worked with a local company to increase bandwidth using signals sent to a dish on the roof. That's allowed all students to do more internet-based learning.

"When you read too much in the textbook, you feel like you want to fall asleep, so computers are basically more helpful," fifth-grader Daisy Jimenez said.

This year her class even collaborated online with NASA and a classroom in Argentina to develop a habitat on Mars.

"It helps them to think globally and beyond the four walls in this classroom," teacher Cheryl Middleton said. "It's really cool to see people from, like, another country," student Drake Danich said.

The Arizona Broadband for Education Initiative is working to close the digital divide for rural schools.  By Arizona fronting $3 million from the state's general fund and $8 million from the Corporation Commission, the state can leverage about 100 million dollars in federal grants.

Under the program, 106 schools and libraries have submitted their forms to receive broadband. Eligibility is based on a school's percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch.

"What that means to a school like Congress, in Baghdad, or Crown King is that the bill is going to cost zero dollars to bring in a fiber line to this community," Goligoski said.

Some projects may take several years to complete, and state education officials believe as many as 100,000 Arizona students will benefit from the faster internet speeds.

High-speed internet also opens opportunity for teaching specialized or advanced classes remotely, giving students a wider variety of educational opportunities.

"You can broadcast that class, or you can bring in a classroom from a remote location and actually bring it into a larger size school," Goligoski said.