MCALLEN, RGV – When McAllen Mayor Jim Darling asked students at Thigpen-Zavala Elementary School in south McAllen if they had Wi-Fi at home, most raised their hands.

Ann Vega, director of instructional technology and library services for McAllen ISD, said she doubts if this is the case.

“Almost all raised their hands but I suspect they use their parents’ phones,” she said. “I did a survey probably about 2016 where I asked all of our students, out of the 20,000-plus we had. About 9,000 answered and it showed that we have about 36 percent of students that do not have Wi-Fi at home.”

Vega said she asked students without Wi-Fi at home how they completed their homework.

“They said they would go to the public library, they would use their parent’s and aunt’s and uncle’s phones. They would go to those places that have hot spots, Starbucks and McDonald’s and other restaurants that have Wi-Fi for free.”

Sonia Casas, principal at Thigpen-Zavala Elementary, agreed with Vega’s analysis.

“We typically have about 96 percent of our students who are considered low, socio-economic, they have limited resources. Even those who have Internet right now, I know it is a sacrifice for the parents. When your Internet is costing $40 or $50 a month and you are just trying to make ends meet, that is really a luxury. Even for those that currently have Wi-Fi, this is going to be a great resource. It will make it more affordable for them.”

Ann Vega

Mayor Darling and McAllen ISD Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez announced a new program on Monday aimed at bridging the digital divide for low income families in McAllen. Thanks to a partnership with AT&T and its Access service, qualifying families can have Wi-Fi in their homes for $5 or $10 a month. Those families must be on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“Students, there are a lot of adults, a lot of people, in this room that care about you very much. We want to help you accomplish your dreams,” Gonzalez said. “Today is about a joint effort between the City of McAllen and McAllen ISD to provide select families with access to the Internet at a very affordable price. We want to give families an opportunity to connect.”

At McAllen ISD, students in Pre-K thru 5th grade generally have iPads. Those in 6th grade and above generally have Chrome books. Still, Gonzalez, noted, that is not a lot of good if students cannot access the Internet at home.

“This effort is to ensure that when you get home, you can connect. The whole intent is to leverage technologies, so you can be engaged in your learning, so that your learning experience can be authentic, so you can really make connections with things going on around the world,” Gonzalez said. “We ultra-excited about this joint effort.”

In his remarks to students, Mayor Darling said the City of McAllen has been working on the project for a couple of years. “We have found a program with ATT, a program called Access that is not expensive. That seems affordable,” Darling said.

The mayor noted that one way to sign up for the Wi-Fi service is to go online. But the families McAllen ISD and the City of McAllen are trying to reach cannot get online. So, thousands of fliers will go out to parents across the district and the city’s library and community centers will have information on the project. So too will a mobile technology unit run by the Boys & Girls Club and Hidalgo County Commissioner Eddie Cantu. The bus was outside the school and Cantu was in attendance.

Darling acknowledged that even with the partnership with AT&T, there will still be some areas in McAllen that cannot access the program. He said the City of McAllen and McAllen ISD would work together to plug the gaps

In an interview with reporters after the announcement, Darling said the partnership with AT&T will expire in three years. “We want to make sure we continue with this service,” Darling said. “We tried to do this for free. That was our main goal. Not being able to do that, AT&T’s program came pretty close to that. One gig, which is enough for video games and homework, is $5, five gigs is $10. Hopefully, everybody who has SNAP, which is a food program, is eligible.”

Darling said the City of McAllen and McAllen ISD will send out 24,000 flyers. “If you have a phone, you just have to plug in the device into the phone outlet. You do not have to wire your house. If you don’t (have a phone) they will send the device to you. It is pretty easy. There is not an intrusion into your house.

Thigpen-Zavala Elementary School Principal Sonia S. Casas and McAllen Mayor Jim Darling.

Asked how many McAllen students lack Wi-Fi at home, Darling said: “We identified about 8,000 houses and 10,000 students. It is a significant part of ISD that does not have it. Hopefully, we will get all 8,000 families on board. We know there are some pockets that will not be able to get the service. We will work on that.”

Darling said the City of McAllen will also keep some of its “hot spots” open a little longer at night to help students do their homework. “Ultimately, we would like to get this in everybody’s house. For the City to push it out it was going to be a $18 million process and we have a lot of Wi-Fi all over and a lot of fiber.  Especially in the rural areas, it is going to be very difficult. Probably, what you are going to have to do initially is find locations that are going to be accessible to the kids after hours so they can do their homework.”

Darling added: “Phone companies are going to provide services where there are potential customers and not just customers on these (low-cost) programs. It is a challenge.”

In her interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, McAllen ISD’s Vega said a program called G Suite has been helpful for those students who do not have Wi-Fi at home.

“This has been huge because for the last year or two it has allowed our students to do some of their work offline, so if I was working on a paper I could go, finish it and the moment I hit Wi-Fi, it would sync, so that kind of helped,” Vega said.

Vega said accessing AT&T’s Access program would be a major breakthrough.

“I think it is huge. It is going to afford all our students the ability to do real research, and all those other things that if I didn’t have Wi-Fi, I would not have that capability. Five dollars a month? That is a domino’s pizza. It is one night they don’t go out to eat. I think for most families, $5 or $10 is tough for some but it is worth if for the connectivity. The parents will always put the kids first.”

Thigpen-Zavala Elementary Superintendent Casas says she sees the digital divide in McAllen every time she leaves her school at night.

“As I am leaving at 5:30 or 6 o’clock I will see middle school students or high school students, sometimes elementary students, just trying to get their homework done, tapping into the Internet. Fortunately, we have some plugs out there to allow them to get their devices charged. The students want to do well, they just lack the resources,” Casas said.

Asked if she can see a difference in the level of engagement and educational attainment between students that have Wi-Fi at home and those who do not, Casas said:

“We had three groups of students, my advanced classes, 3rd, 4th and 5th, we asked the question, how many of you have Internet access. You had three-fourths of the students raise their hands. That is the reason they are in the advanced group. Those are the families that in one way, shape or form, they make sure the children have the resources they need for the school. Others don’t quite make it to the advanced classes. It is really, really, sad. This is going to level the playing field a little bit more. So, all students have access to Wi-Fi.”

Asked if Internet connectivity is important in an elementary school, Casas said: “It is a must. My morning announcements are built around technology. Everything is web-based. We have videos, and that is how we teach the lessons, we are sharing with teachers from across the state and nation. We pull together.”