Yough middle schoolers prepare to roll on Wi-Fi-equipped buses
As the wheels on the bus go ‘round, Yough middle schoolers will be tapping away on their laptops.
Starting Monday, three of the 20 buses that shuttle students to and from Yough Intermediate Middle School will have wireless internet access.
The school is one of 16 school communities nationwide to participate in Google’s Rolling Study Hall pilot. The program focuses on rural areas where students have long commutes and may not have access to internet at home, equipping buses with Wi-Fi, providing students with laptops and funding tutors to ride the buses with students.
“Why not maximize that time on the bus?” said Yough Superintendent Janet Sardon. She explained that the program will give students more time to work on homework and to receive extra tutoring from the nine Yough teachers who will rotate buses throughout the week.
Lonna Mokay is one of those teachers. The former math teacher has been with the district for 17 years and now works as a guidance counselor. She said that this extra time with students is valuable.
“They have, right there, a teacher who can assist them,” she said. Even if students are not doing homework, she’ll be there to chat, check in and offer whatever support the student might need right away.
About 100 students will participate in the program, Principal Kevin Smetak said. All of those students — about 20 percent of the school’s 550 students in grades five through eight — have one-way bus trips longer than 45 minutes, a requirement to be eligible for the program. All of the students who ride the three Wi-Fi equipped buses had the option to participate, but parents could choose to opt out.
About 30 Yough Intermediate Middle School students, or 5 percent, get driven to and from school by parents or guardians.
“I’m excited because I’ll be able to get my schoolwork done here instead of the library,” said Tanner Jarmon, an eighth-grader who lives in Sutersville. He was one of 12 students to demonstrate the program Friday.
Jarmon said he usually talks to friends on the bus but is looking forward to using this time to get some homework done since he doesn’t have a computer at home. Typing was manageable even as the bus snaked around tight turns on hilly roads, and Jarmon said he wasn’t feeling nauseous.
Gage Ashbaugh, a seventh-grader who lives in Smithton, said he’s struggled to get homework done in the past.
“It’s really amazing for me to be able to do my tests, because my teachers put things on Google Classroom,” Ashbaugh said. Google Classroom is an online platform that Yough teachers use to post quizzes, assignments or other classroom materials.
Internet access has been an issue in rural communities nationwide for years.
A March 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 58 percent of rural adults think that access to high-speed internet is still a problem in their area. Those areas are less likely to have the infrastructure to support broadband services. Fewer internet service providers generally operate in those areas, and connection speeds are typically slower, Federal Communications Commission data show.
About 3 percent of Westmoreland County residents live in areas that are not equipped to support high-speed, broadband internet access, according to the most recent Federal Communications Commission data.
Sardon estimates that as many as a third of the district’s students don’t have good internet access at home. The rural, 77-square-mile district 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh serves about 2,200 students. About 47 percent of the school’s students come from low-income families, according to 2016-17 school year data from the state Department of Education.
Google first piloted the Rolling Study Halls program in two schools in North Carolina and South Carolina in 2016.
Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Gamewell Middle School in Caldwell County, North Carolina, serves students who have two- to three-hour round-trip commutes and do not have internet access at home, according to information provided by the Rolling Study Hall program.
Google partnered with the Consortium for School Networking, an association for school technology professionals, to measure the impact of the Rolling Study Hall program, Sanchez said. At Yough, they’ll be looking at students’ test scores, classroom achievement and homework completion rates to see whether the program is benefiting students.
Districts in Clarksville, Tenn.; Santa Fe, N.M.; and three remote districts in Colorado are among those to join the second round of the pilot with Yough this fall, Sanchez said.
Google isn’t the first to provide mobile internet services to students. School districts and community members have been rolling out ways to make sure students have internet and computer access outside school for the past decade.
The Coachella Valley Unified School District in Thermal, a southern California desert community, started wiring buses back in 2014, according to reports from The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit newsroom covering education. Though the district’s 18,000 students had tablets, many didn’t have internet access necessary to complete assignments at home and relied on school buses to traverse hourlong commutes.
In Palm Beach County, Fla., a former guidance counselor and teacher used her retirement savings to purchase a coach bus and install computer workstations equipped with high-speed internet, according to a 2011 CNN report . Estella’s Brilliant Bus, founded by Estella Pyfrom, had the resources to support school-age children as well as adults, who could access resume assistance, banking tutorials or GED courses.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.