Woodland schools offering free Wi-Fi in parking lots to expand access
Woodland Elementary District 50 in Gurnee will provide free Wi-Fi hot spots in all school parking lots, a move officials say is an effort to help students whose parents can't afford fast Internet service at home.
Steve Thomas, District 50's assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said changing demographics are driving the Wi-Fi initiative expected to start this fall. About 40 percent of Woodland's 6,200 pupils are from low-income families and qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and breakfast.
"We need to try to raise the equity bar, so that our kids that are living in difficult environments have the same kind of opportunities that our kids who are living in wealthier or average homes have," Thomas said. "So that's what our goal really is with this."
Thomas said a fast Internet connection has become a necessity for students in the classroom or when they do homework.
"You need a lot of information," he said, "and you need instant access."
Woodland Director of Technology Dann Giesey said it won't cost anything extra to boost the Wi-Fi signal to reach designated parking areas near main entrances to the district's five schools. He said the password-protected signals -- complete with the district's safety filters -- will be available in the lots 24 hours a day, but only to Woodland families and pupils.
"One of our goals for our technology committee last year was to take a look at trying to have equal access to technology for our students here in the district," Giesey said. "So, with that comes an important need, which is, 'How do I get to the Internet? What kind of Internet access am I going to have?' And we've done things here working with AT&T and some of the other carriers out there about getting low-cost solutions for families that are in our low-income group.
"But even those solutions -- I think most of the specials that are running are like $9.99 a month -- you still have families who are having a tough time getting by that they can't even afford to have that kind of Internet."
Giesey said signs with a Woodland Wi-Fi logo will be placed on light poles in the parking areas. The Woodland logo also might pop up at businesses in Gurnee and other parts of District 50.
Woodland school board President Chris Schrantz said it's important to have the Wi-Fi available in the parking lots when the students or their families need it at any hour.
"I think this is creative thinking on their part," Schrantz said of Giesey and Thomas.
As another component of the Wi-Fi initiative, Woodland officials intend to ask local establishments, such as fast-food restaurants, to allow students to connect to the Internet without needing to make a purchase. Officials said the Gurnee Park District, Warren-Newport Public Library and the Warren Township teen center also will be Wi-Fi partners.
"I think our goal, really, there was just to make sure that our kids could go and utilize a facility with already robust Wi-Fi that they have there," Thomas said. "And one thing we had talked about was allowing ... businesses to advertise on our website as having a (Wi-Fi) place. These are the business where you can go, will welcome you, won't be encouraged or required to purchase anything, but you can use their Wi-Fi."
Thomas said the Wi-Fi initiative is part of a big-picture plan that would include placing a computer or tablet in the hands of every student, typically called a 1-to-1 program by educators.
"We surveyed our kids ... a little while ago and 92 percent of our kids have access to the Internet," Thomas said. "But what that Internet looks like is very different. So, that might just be a flip phone that has 3G attached to it. You can't really do homework. You can't really do types of things we're asking kids to do."
District 50 also plans to loan a mix of tablets and laptop computers to students to ensure they have a quality device after school hours. Officials said the district is working on a policy and how to handle the process.
"One of the things we always wrestle with here is that we purchase technology and students use it throughout the day" Giesey said. "What a great way to continue their use is to allow them to be checked out at night for those families that don't have access to technology. It's sitting here and not being used in the evening. Let's put it to good use."