We gathered critical input internally from students, educators, union leaders, and school leaders, as well as externally from parents, neighbors, business owners, and local government through design sessions, PTA meetings, and surveys. In the end, we designed a solution based on the needs of all of the stakeholders we heard from.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to providing high-speed filtered Internet to your students. However, getting a clear idea of need across stakeholders is essential before embarking on the work. The standard set of questions we used to gauge the breadth and depth of the opportunity were:
We are an isolated, rural district, which has historically meant that most companies have minimal incentive to support or connect with us. However, through our vetting efforts to inform decisions around the Free Community WiFi program, we worked with many partners to explore various options, including Netbooks on a cellular network and mobile broadband. Eventually, we landed in a series of promising conversations with the area’s wireless and utility providers to expand the district’s own network to transmit signals and create local hotspots to serve as access points throughout the community.
It was easy for us to identify where antennae should be installed—school and city buildings located throughout the district could serve that function. City and district leaders negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding to allow for installation and upkeep on city-owned facilities.
We launched the initiative with a testing period. In January 2015, the district installed a series of WiFi hotspots in an apartment complex next to one of the district’s elementary schools, providing access to 40 learners and their families. Apartment buildings provided additional challenges. We asked apartment managers if we could install a single unit to cover all apartments, but they refused. This moved us to create an additional solution using mobile hotspots. This pilot period confirmed the viability of the solution.
In spring 2015, the district planned to install additional antennae on schools and city buildings and hotspots in staff homes. However, to go further, we had to address two additional challenges. First, we tackled an existing policy barrier—a local ban on the installation of telecommunications equipment. This ordinance was a relic of past technology when satellite dishes and cell phone towers were large, unsightly, and often disruptive structures. Lindsay Unified convinced the City Council to pass an amendment to its municipal code to allow residential installations of hotspots and antennas. Second, district leaders needed to secure willing participants for installation. The district reached out to staff with a direct request, explaining the vision and asking for their support to make it a reality. With this direct, informational approach, we secured enough participation to move forward.
The district team was ready to move to install hotspots in residences across the community. However, with no precedent for engaging families and other community members in this way, the extent to which people would volunteer was unclear. Lindsay Unified sent a mass communication, clearly explaining the need and request. The community’s response was overwhelmingly positive. Many of those who stepped up were thanked for their commitment and informed that their participation wouldn’t be necessary. Selected respondents signed a one-year, automatically renewing agreement to have the hotspot installed and maintained on their property.
We created a website to explain the program to families and other stakeholders. This website included an overview of the work, a coverage map, and a short video to explain the need for at-home connectivity, connecting the program clearly with the district’s vision for learning. Further, it’s important to remember that the informational needs of individuals aren’t homogenous. Making sure that communication strategies aren’t one-size-fits-all by defining key stakeholder groups, messages, and plans for execution was critical to our success.