Improved internet service in the rural areas of the county will make testing easier and open up new teaching and collaboration opportunities.
Wanting to support all teachers and students in San Benito County to reach their highest potential, San Benito County Office of Education applied for and received the Broadband Infrastructure and Improvement Grant (BIIG) for rural schools in San Benito County. About 40 percent of the students in the county don't have internet, local experts say. The California Department of Education website states, “The intent of these funds is to assist schools that do not have sufficient internet connectivity to conduct the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) System that includes the Smarter Balanced computer-based assessments."
Roy Sims, Director of Technology for San Benito County Office of Education told BenitoLink, “So far North County (Spring Grove), Southside, Tres Pinos, and Jefferson are completed. We have Cienega, Juvenile Hall, and Panoche at various stages of completion. Also Aromas is completed as well.” Bitterwater Tully, in the southern part of the county, will also receive the benefits of this grant. Sims is currently working with the Willow Grove School Board, who originally denied incorporating the grant based on cost, to see if an updated bid will be accepted.
A news release from the San Benito County Office of Education states, “The total cost of these projects falls between approximately $1 million and $1.5 million, with all costs covered by BIIG. Included in that specific site costs range from approximately $350,000 at Jefferson Elementary School District to $55,000 for Southside School District.”
The news release also explained, “Prior to these improvements, some school sites struggled to test one classroom at a time. Now an entire school can test simultaneously while all other required technology systems will continue to operate as intended.” This is due to internet the internet having “10 times the speed previously available and for some districts this has resulted in internet speeds up to 1,000 times faster.”
Though this grant was created to help schools have a better ability to complete state mandated testing, Sims shared that there are additional benefits for the schools involved. “Ultimately it was getting students the ability to have that window into a different world. Coming from a rural kid that lives on a ranch, or lives way out there an hour out of town, that is all she sees, but now there is an all new window that they can be presented with." Sims continued, “When they (rural teachers) have the ability to stream and bring in content and cross collaborate and talk to other people,” there becomes, “equity (for education) in all regions.”
Amanda McCraw, who teaches at Jefferson School near the old town of San Benito, is one educator who has already seen the positive results of having high speed internet in the classroom. “It is day and night. We have blazing fast internet compared to what we have had,” McCraw said. “I can have all of the students on their assessment program which is online based,” where before only three to four students could be tested at a time.
McCraw is now also able to incorporate new strategies and curriculum into the classroom, such as Footsteps2Brilliance, which is designed to help increase literacy in students grades pre-K through third grade. “Now that we have a more reliable service we are doing more and more,” McCraw said. Part of this included recently participating in a live streaming event put on by children’s author Henry Winkler who is also an actor and producer. As McCraw explained, before the implementation of the Broadband Infrastructure and Improvement Grant, Jefferson School, “would never have been able to do that.”
Another educator excited to see what changes will come with a new system is Nancy MacLean of Cienega School. “So much of our educational needs are connected to the internet,” and as a result, “we are going to need more and faster internet,” MacLean said. Though MacLean felt her local internet provider did a good job servicing the school, MacLean recognized that receiving this grant for all rural schools in the county was a, “great opportunity for us.”
In addition to implementing BIIG, according to Sims, the next big step for the SBCOE is finding a way to close the internet gap between students who do and do not have internet access at home. Sims shared that after working with local educators and internet carriers it is estimated that roughly, “40% of students across the county don’t have internet access.”
Though a permanent solution to this has not been found Sims remains hopeful that the county will be able to work together to help all students and teachers reach success. As Sims said, “Every campus is different and has different ways of doing things and so it has been a huge crazy puzzle but it has been fun to do. All across the county there are great teachers, great administrators, great students, and great boards,” who throughout the process of incorporating this grant worked together to consolidate funds to, “buy a better and stronger option for them all.”
After all Sims said, “If we can do this as a city and a county we can do so many things.”