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To Connect Students To Internet, One Central Ohio District Hands Out Hot Spots

Adora Namigadde
Lancaster City Schools gives students free WiFi hotspots to help do their work outside the classroom.

Kids squirm in their classroom seats at Tallmadge Elementary School in Lancaster. Ally Konkler, a 5th grader here, is part of a new generation that has grown up with wireless internet. But she says her home WiFi is slow and not so good for schoolwork.

“When we needed to check to see what the definition was and everything like that, it was just slowly working,” Konkler says.

With take-home laptops and nightly homework, internet is a near necessity for students these days. But rural communities in Ohio and around the country often lack high-speed internet outside of school. It’s created what educators call the "homework gap" between wealthy students and peers who don’t have the same access.

Kids from low-income families especially still struggle to get connected outside the classroom. That’s why Lancaster City Schools is giving free WiFi hotspots to hundreds of students in its district.

How Lancaster Got the Money

Lancaster superintendent Steve Wigton says times are changing.

“In today’s world, you got technology in your hands and you can research pretty much anything at any time,” Wigton says.  

He wants district students to be able to take advantage of internet’s accessibility.

“To be able to teach students that they can access learning anywhere,” Wigton says.

That’s what led to the district’s partnership with T-Mobile. Last year, the carrier contacted the district about its EmpowerED grant: $630,400 for school officials buy students WiFi hot spots, laptops or other equipment to help with school work at home.

The program requires districts to have at least 40 percent of their students getting free or reduced lunches. But once a school or entire district wins a grant, any student can get a hot spot, regardless of family income.

Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Lancaster High School senior Alex Widener says the WiFi hot spots help him do homework in between football practices.

It’s been a week since Lancaster High School senior Alex Widener got his hot spot. He says it’s made life a lot easier for himself and his fellow students.

“Then I know some friends, classmates who don’t have internet at home,” Widener says. “I’ve been hearing good things from that because they can get their homework done at home instead of having to go to McDonalds for free WiFi or something.”

Widener plays football, and since he can get online from anywhere, he can catch up on homework in between games.

“I think it saves time because you’re not gonna have to worry about looking for like an internet connection or driving somewhere to get free WiFi,” Widener says. “You can just sit right there in your car, sit at home and connect to the hot spot and get your work done.”

Expanding The Impact

Tallmadge Elementary, Gorsuch West Elementary and Lancaster High School were all eligible for the program. Over 600 students have taken advantage so far, and more hot spots are available.

Lancaster High School technician Evan Schaffer says about half the students opted in.

“We’ve only had them for about a week, so I haven’t heard a whole lot on those kids,” Schaffer says. “But I know that there are several in the district that are really benefitting from being able to do their homework and not have to go maybe to McDonald’s or Starbucks.”

Up to five devices can connect to the hot spot at once, and one is available per family.

At Tallamadge Elementary, Konkler says she’s grateful for the hot spot, which she says has made life easier for her family.

“It actually helps with me and my brother because we have homework not every single day, but almost every single,” Konkler says. “It’s actually really helpful so we can just get on and do our homework.”

If she wants to keep her hotspot, Konkler might eventually need the district to chip in. The grant from T-Mobile runs out in June 2020.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.