LA JOYA, Texas – La Joya ISD is fitting more school buses with wifi so that students living in colonias and rural parts of the district can sit alongside the buses and do their homework.
Currently, LJISD has 27 buses and one mobile tech lab that have a strong wifi signal. They are helping address the digital divide in rural parts of western Hidalgo County.
Such has been demand for the buses during the coronavirus-induced school shutdown, that LJISD Superintendent Gisela Saenz has ordered 20 more.
“Our bus drivers are sending us pictures of the cars parked around the buses. There are just so many students taking advantage of the wifi. It is beautiful to see, it is almost emotional,” said Clem Garza, director of technology and instructional resources at LJISD.
La Joya ISD is one of the most economically disadvantaged school districts in the state of Texas. According the Texas Education Agency it is 92.8 percent economically disadvantaged with 79.3 percent to students deemed at at-risk. The district has approximately 28,000 students, of whom 99.5 percent are Hispanic.
Because of the high level of poverty in the area, many families do not have internet access at home, explained Martin Muñoz, LJISD’s assistant superintendent for human resources. In much of the western part of the district, internet service providers have not installed the infrastructure for broadband, even if parents could afford it.
Garza, La Joya’s technology director, said she started installing wifi in school buses about three years ago. She also moved quickly to purchase a state-of-the art mobile tech bus.
“I am a former principal and providing the resources to allow our students to succeed is my passion,” Garza said. “When I became technology director, I said, how can I leverage what we offer in this department, which is technology, to help kids learn.”
Garza was full of praise for the leadership of Superintendent Saenz.
“Our superintendent is amazing, so supportive. Two or three years ago we did a pilot. We put wifi on the buses so that students had 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening to do their homework, while riding the bus. When Ms. Saenz heard how successful the wifi-on-the-buses program was, she said, go for it, get us 20 more buses.”
While the school district has been shut down, Garza, working with school district’s transportation director, has deployed the school buses far and wide.
“We have spread the buses our around our school district community. We have concentrated on areas where there is low internet infrastructure. That has been our priority. In the cities it has not been as critical because there are restaurants that have wifi, allowing parents to congregate there with their children. They can park outside. Our priority was to focus on the areas that were extremely rural. In the western part of our district there are no cell towers.”
Garza said she currently has 20 buses that have routers and antennas and seven buses that have Verizon hotspots. More are definitely needed, she explained.
“We are in the process of getting 20 more buses that will be equipped with antennas and routers. We are just waiting for the equipment to come in. It will allow us to cover 20 more areas. I am very excited.”
Garza said the reward for her department’s enterprise comes when she hears from teachers, parents and students.
“I was in tears when a teacher called to say ‘thank you.’ She told me the kids are now able to turn in their homework. She said, it is these little things that nobody notices. She thanked me. It melted my heart.”
Garza said when she witnesses the potential of La Joya’s students it is easy to get emotional.
“All we hear about is the negative side of this COVID-19 but there are some positive things coming out of this. We have never been more in touch with what our community needs are. To think I am part of this program that is making such a difference, oh my God.”
Blanca E. Cantú is public relations and communications coordinator for LJISD. She said the distract has worked hard to secure the laptops and tablets needed for students who are taking duel enrollment college courses.
“Much of this work is online. We have worked hard to get grants to purchase these devices,” Cantú said.