Whitmore Elementary Gets Wired: California, Telecomm, Ratepayers Close Digital Divide

Small school, big internet.

Small school, big internet.

The fourth graders at Whitmore Union Elementary School are learning to code.

Let that sink in.

As adults, one of these rural eastern Shasta County kids might someday design the robot army that destroys humanity. Become the next hedge fund billionaire. Create a successful rural four-wheel-drive sharing service—call it Ruber (trademark). Whatever the future digital economy holds, the dozen or so students in Whitmore Elementary’s fourth-through-eighth grade classroom are preparing for it.

The school is currently wired via a T-1 line it shares with Black Butte Elementary, 20 winding miles to the south off Highway 44. These rural students already have some power at their fingertips, and thanks to a collaboration between the state of California, Frontier Communications and the state’s telephone ratepayers, they’re about to get a lot more.

It comes in the form of a last-mile 1 gigabyte fiber optic internet connection funded by the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF).

Earlier this month, Western Industries, a northern California subcontractor hired by Frontier, began stringing wire and laying cable between the school in Whitmore and a fiber optic backbone owned by a local provider located eight miles to the north. Whitmore, population 828, is unaccustomed to infrastructure upgrades, so it was hard to miss the fleet of white utility pickups and construction vehicles roaming Old 44 and Fern Road East these past few weeks.

Workers drill hole for utility pole on Fern Road East.

Workers drill hole for utility pole on Fern Road East.

The project has been a year-and-half in the making, according to Frontier Communications West spokesperson Emily Tantare.

“Frontier was awarded the opportunity to provide services through the [CASF] last year, and the project included Whitmore Elementary School,” she explained. “When completed, the network will provide the school with a 1G point-to-point circuit back to the Shasta County Office of Education.”

The school won’t be the only local entity to benefit. The project includes two remote servers that will provide broadband access to approximately 150 homes when the eight-mile-long route is completed this fall. For those along the route, Frontier will offer subscriptions for service that promises to be significantly faster than the existing DSL, satellite and wireless internet service in the area.

The project is overseen by the California K-12 High Speed Internet program, which over the past two years has received $57 million from CASF to connect rural schools from Imperial to Siskiyou County. The CASF was created by the Legislature in 2008 with the goal of boosting adoption of broadband internet services by the state’s under-served rural and urban communities to 90 percent by 2023.

The program is paid for by a tax, “a few cents per month,” on your telephone bill. To date, it has raised $315 million for CASF, boosting broadband adoption to 79 percent. “Adoption” in this case means both schools and household have access to and are using broadband internet. This month the California Assembly will vote on AB 1758, the Internet For All Act of 2016, which seeks to secure an additional $350 million to fund CASF through 2023.

Whitmore Union Elementary School teacher Jessica German likes tech and thinks kindergarteners should code.

Whitmore Union Elementary School teacher Jessica German likes tech and thinks kindergartners should code.

School of the Wired

Although the final cost of Whitmore Elementary’s last-mile 1G fiber optic connection has yet to be released, it’s a small sliver of the CASF budget. While the T-1 line the school currently shares was once  the go-to option for a dedicated, high-speed connection, it can’t keep up with the demands required by today’s computerized education system.

The nationwide Common Core initiative, which seeks to set universal standards for language arts and mathematics education, has been the primary driver behind the state’s effort to provide true broadband to schools in underserved rural and urban communities.

“This was one of the nice little perks that comes from the state for Common Core testing,” says teacher Jessica German, indicating the 60-inch touchscreen monitor that beams lessons out to her dozen charges, grades fourth-through-eighth, each with their own Chromebook. Her classroom is one of those spaces that seems four times larger on the inside than its exterior, in no small part due to the proliferation of computer screens.

“We were never without internet,” she says out of respect for the soon-to-be-replaced T-1, which sometimes slowed enough to require students to share computers during testing. “None of that will matter, because we’re getting a brand new big pipe in.”

While her older students finished that afternoon’s assignment, a persuasive expository essay, German demonstrated how the computerized Common Core curriculum for mathematics works. Students still get textbooks. In fact they get two: an old school hard copy and a digital edition that can be viewed at home or in the classroom on their Chromebooks. A video math teacher on the big screen teaches lessons that correspond with the text.

I asked German if she is worried about the video math teacher taking her job.

“He really isn’t and it’s really nice to have a different face other than mine,” she says. “A lot of these students are going to see me for five years, so it’s not a bad thing.”

She hopes the fiber optic connection will be completed by May, in time for Common Core testing.

“We didn’t have enough bandwidth to have all the kids online at the same time,” she says. “People will be able to take whatever time they need on a test.”

The ability to stream video has become increasingly important in classrooms. Humanity From Space, a lesson program that brings students perspective on peoples and places around the world, will soon play without buffering. There’s not a Bunsen burner or a test tube in the class, but students will be able to practice chemistry in digital laboratories, and explore geography on digital field trips.

“It opens up the world to them,” says Dr. Larry Robinson, superintendent of the Whitmore Union Elementary School District. The number of total students ranges from 20 to 40.

The school is small and rural enough to be its own district, and that means budget decisions can come down to choosing between an assistant teacher or a tech upgrade. Thanks to the new project, German will now have both. Assistant teacher Miss Sandy teaches fourth-grade “boot camp.” That includes learning to code.

“Tech is big in my classroom, I like tech,” says German, who thinks kindergartners should be coding. “Code is good because they’re actually learning something that they like to do. We need people who can code.”

German doesn’t find the Common Core curriculum restraining. She’s able to teach it to grades fourth-through-eighth and still manage to chart her own course, which includes, of course, teaching kids to code in addition to reading, writing and arithmetic.

“In this classroom, I can utilize whatever I want,” says German, who has taught at Whitmore since 2003. “We’ve always been fortunate, we have had a fair number number of computers in the classroom. We’ve been able to keep up with stuff. There’s no place like it. I can’t believe I get to teach here every day.”

Contact Your Legislator

If passed later this year, the Internet For All Act of 2016, AB 1758, will ensure infrastructure projects for underserved urban and rural communities will continue to be funded through 2023. Catherine Emerson, manager of Chico State’s broadband program and a prominent northern California broadband advocate, urges citizens of the region who support the bill to contact 1st District Assemblyman Brian Dahle this week. Hearings on the bill are expected to begin in mid-March.

Internet users can also check the advertised speed of their internet provider’s connection and register it with CalSPEED, a California Public Utilities Commission program that maps real-time connection speeds. The program helps determine which underserved communities need the most attention.

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide is an award-winning journalist who has covered news, politics, music, arts and culture in Northern California for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in the Tenderloin Times, Sacramento News & Review, Reno News & Review, Chico News & Review, North Bay Bohemian, San Jose Metro, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, Alternet, Boston Phoenix, Creative Loafing and Counterpunch, among many other publications. His honors include winning the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Freedom of Information Act and best columnist awards as well as best commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists, California chapter. Mr. Scheide welcomes your comments and story tips. Contact him at RVScheide@anewscafe.com..

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