School board approves new Wi-Fi network funding as some remote learners struggle

Jordan Meier
Pittsburg LTE Map: Estimated coverage given three 6-sector sites and potential of two additional sites.

PITTSBURG, Kan. — The Pittsburg Community Schools Board of Education approved funding for a private LTE network at their meeting on Tuesday. The network, funded by money from the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARK) taskforce, will provide a connection to students with unstable Wi-Fi connections or access, and allow them to connect to the school’s protected network.

 This decision comes after the district went through a massive technological transition in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and has a portion of its students continuing their schoolwork remotely.

 “This is a huge thing for our community,” Assistant Superintendent Dr. Brad Hanson said. “Once this is up and running this is going to be something we are very very proud of.”

 Hanson said this is a pet project of his. He has wanted to get something like this started in Pittsburg for a while, and he even tried to start the same thing at his last district.

 “I’m really excited about this one. When I was superintendent of Monnett I tried to get something like this launched and just wasn't able to,” he said.

 This project is a collaborative effort between the district, the City of Pittsburg and Motorola. Motorola will provide the equipment and the network connection, and the city will be in charge of maintenance.

 “I really have to give kudos to [Deputy City Manager] Jay Byers at the city,” Hanson said. “He is the one that came to me and said let’s to do a collaborative project. Let’s do this with the SPARK money.”

 The city commission also discussed this project at its meeting on Tuesday. Byers explained that Pittsburg will be one of the first places to utilize a newly available spectrum from the FCC called the Citizen’s Broadband Radio Service.

 “So, do you think we are the first in the state to use this approach?” Mayor Dawn McNay asked.

 “We’re definitely the first in the state,” Byers said. “We’re one of the first in the country to do this.”

 The first phase of the network, which will cost a little over $250,000, will start with three antennas installed at the north water tower at 18th and Joplin, Memorial Auditorium and the south water tower at Madison and Joplin.

“We gave them [Motorola] a map and showed them where our lower-income students lived, and so then they came out and said here’s strategic spots where you can put antennas,” Hanson said. “It is limited in scope, but it’s a good start.”

Hanson said this initial phase will allow the district to get the Wi-Fi into about 100 households, but each household can support more than one device, meaning it can support more than one student.

“It’ll be 100 devices [modems] we can send home to kids, but multiple Chromebooks can fit on one device, so when I say 100 homes that could be 150 kids,” he said.

This private network would be an extension of the district’s already existing network with the same security and restrictions. It would allow them to pick and choose what devices are on the network, and monitor/control what websites are accessible to the users. It will also replace their current use of unlimited Wi-Fi hotspots for students that need them.

“We’re building a Verizon network or a Sprint network,” Hanson said. “It’s a cellular network that we own. The difference is if I use a Sprint [network] I don’t get to control where kids go. When I give them that Wi-Fi hotspot, they can go anywhere, they can look at any site they want to. With our system, we can control that.”

 The first phase would not reach kids that live past the bypass, or kids that live south of the southern water tower as the district was only granted about $250,000 of the $2.5 million it asked for to make the project a reality. However, the board already has plans to expand the project and is currently in talks with the Kansas Department of Commerce to get more funding as soon as possible.

“They said ‘we love your idea,’” Hanson said. “They really want to fund more, but they haven't told me how much they’re going to fund.”

With any additional funding, the school board hopes it will get close to 100 percent saturation and reach all the families in need.

“This is a huge deal,” Board Member Jason Grotheer said. “This is like the golden marker of what everyone else would want to do.”

While the school board excitedly discussed this new network, the members also had a serious discussion about online students that have not been engaging at all since the school year began.

“For those are engaged in their education, it seems to be working. It's not the same as being in a classroom, but it seems to be working pretty well,” Superintendent Richard Proffitt said. “For those students and/or families that do not engage, it is not. It is not working well at all.”

Proffitt and Hanson said of the roughly 350 students currently doing full-time online learning, about 10 to 15 percent are completely disengaged. They are concerned.

 “We have had to send out a lot of truancy letters,” Proffitt said. “We sent out a letter last week to remote learner parents reminding them that a lack of engagement could mean that we send in truancy letters, and their lack of engagement could have a tremendous impact on their future in this district, meaning: ‘Can they be promoted to the next grade level?’ ‘Will they be able to earn any credits when they get into high school?’ and ‘will it have an impact on your graduation?’”

A truancy letter is sent home when a child has been unexcused from school for over 21 consecutive days, and while remote learning has made it a little harder to track attendance, Proffitt said they can tell which students are engaged and attending class, and which are not.

“The fact of the matter is we do have some students that are choosing to do little of anything in engaging, and it is going to have an impact on them,” Proffitt said.

Proffit said this is an issue they are having at every grade level, and he outlined the efforts the district has gone to to get in contact with these students, including SRO officer visits, calls and emails home, and even home visits by the teachers.

“Our administration, our counselors have bent over backward to try to communicate with some of them. Our teachers continually try to engage them in a lot of different ways and there has been, in some instances, little to [nothing back],” Profitt said.

 Some members of the board pointed out there could be a myriad of factors causing this issue.

 “There is a part of me that knows that there could be other situations going on in families,” Board Member Marlene Willis said. “So, I just have concerns for kids when they’re not engaged, and I know we all do.”

 Proffitt agreed that no two situations were going to be the same.

“We don’t have any definitive answer for each individual student because every individual circumstance is different,” Proffitt said. “So, we are not making any blanket coverage statements.”

But moving forward, most on the board agreed they needed to create a hard line to show how serious they were about needing the students to be engaged. 

“From my perspective, we have a responsibility to not advance them,” Board Vice President Ed McKechnie said. “They’ve decided not to advance themselves.”

While they know they will probably have to be harsh, Grotheer pointed out that no one likes having to do this.

“We have a student that wasn’t successful that we were responsible for,” he said.