Author Scott L. Bailey
CSBA's Golden Bell Awards Winner logo
from the field
By Scott L. Bailey with contributions from Wendy Jonathan and Kelly May-Vollmar
Building a bridge across the digital divide

he statistics are startling. According to the United States Congress Joint Economic Committee, seven in 10 teachers assign homework that requires broadband access, but nearly one in three households don’t have it.

In a December 2018 report, Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called this issue, also known as the homework gap, the “cruelest part of the digital divide.” Predictably, the divide further exacerbates achievement gaps that exist among student groups.

The Desert Sands Unified School District Board of Education knew the Riverside County district would have to think creatively inside the box (the box is defined by applicable laws and regulations) to address the issue in a manner that was consistent with its core values and vision to successfully prepare every student for college, career and life. Under the direction of the board, and its commitment to equity, the district developed and deployed an innovative solution to help close the digital divide.

“As today’s students are primarily digital learners, it is imperative that school leaders be mindful of potential equity and access gaps when deploying technology into the teaching and learning process,” said Desert Sands USD Superintendent Scott L. Bailey. “Critical decisions can either widen or narrow the pre-existing digital divide.”

Through a public-private partnership, broadband coverage within the school district’s 752-square-mile attendance area was assessed. The study of existing broadband coverage revealed inadequate coverage in specific areas of district boundaries. When compared to geographical data regarding the socioeconomic needs of the community, areas of concern were quickly identified. To fill the void where signal strength was inadequate, outmoded school microwave towers were strategically retrofitted with broadband transceivers. Industry partners for infrastructure architecture and broadband service included Red Rover and Pacific Lightwave, respectively. These solution providers were discovered by researching successful projects of similar nature in California, and by their responses to the request for proposal.

Boy working on computer with headphones
“As today’s students are primarily digital learners, it is imperative that school leaders be mindful of potential equity and access gaps when deploying technology into the teaching and learning process.”
— Scott L. Bailey

Coupled with district-issued Chromebooks for home and school use, students in grades 2-12 — regardless of socioeconomic status — now have access to filtered WiFi connectivity in their households, which provides equitable access to extended, personalized learning opportunities.

The Connect: One to World LTE network was completed in a single year with a one-time build cost of approximately $590,000 and is supported by a nominal annual service provider fee of under $30,000.

Communication to all stakeholders was deliberate. With the district’s “why” at the core of all communications, messaging expanded to larger audiences as the project advanced. For example, the initial communication began with the board of education, then expanded to site-based administrators, teachers, students, parents and the larger community. Public forums titled Growing Up Digital assisted in the messaging and included a digital citizenship component.

This innovative approach to bridging the digital divide was rewarded with a CSBA Golden Bell Award, which recognizes outstanding programs and governance practices of district and county office boards throughout California. The program was also featured in a United States Government Accountability Office report to congress, in which the GAO recommended that the FCC consider relaxing E-Rate guidelines, which currently restrict use of federal funds for at-home connections. For example, the tower retrofits and actual broadband service fees incurred for this innovative project are not permissible E-Rate expenses. Additionally, in order to adhere to E-Rate regulations, Desert Sands USD had to buy a separate line of internet access to avoid having the off-premises traffic travel through the district’s existing E-Rate-supported network.

Woman teaching little girl using an ipad

Although this innovative approach worked for Desert Sands, other districts may have unique needs to be addressed. For anyone considering a similar initiative, Desert Sands suggests the following steps to a successful project:

  • Establish board of education commitment
    • Conduct study sessions as necessary
    • Align project to district’s mission, vision and values
  • Start with establishing a budget and sustainability plan
    • Determine dedicated, appropriate budget
    • Consider budget for a device refreshment program (One-sixth of units in DSUSD replaced annually)
    • Consider infrastructure capacity
  • Involve key departments
    • Facilitate cross-departmental collaboration under unified purpose
    • Unite academics with technology
    • Plan adequate professional development opportunities
    • Include library media technicians for device distribution; Chromebook as textbook
    • Include maintenance and operations personnel in planning
    • Enlist the communications team early
  • Search for solution providers early
    • Conduct appropriate request for proposals
    • Secure Educational Broadband Spectrum; contact FCC
  • Consider necessary policy and regulation modifications
    • Revise acceptable use forms
    • Revise parent/student handbook
  • Provide intentional communications/marketing
    • Gain stakeholder input
    • Conduct community forums
    • Provide information via digital and print media
  • Include student voice
    • Create student-developed device and connectivity instructional videos
    • Include Associated Student Body input and feedback
    • Consider LCAP and other (e.g. BrightBytes) survey data
  • Practice continuous improvement
    • Adopt Plan-Do-Study-Act mindset to continually improve

Desert Sands USD is proud of its 2019 CSBA Golden Bell recognition and its legacy of innovation. “In today’s technology rich world, access to a device and internet connectivity has to be considered a basic educational need,” said Kelly May-Vollmar, assistant superintendent of educational services. “Ensuring that every student has access opens up a world of learning opportunities and removes the barricade to curiosity that inequity creates.”

Scott L. Bailey is the superintendent of Desert Sands USD. Wendy Jonathan is a trustee on the Desert Sands USD board of education. Kelly May-Vollmar is assistant superintendent of educational services at Desert Sands USD.