Getting smarter isn’t only for the students at Spencer Community Schools. Buses are next in line to get “smarter” as the transportation and technology departments work together to complete a test pilot to determine the usefulness and cost effectiveness of Wi-Fi on school buses.
Transportation Director, Julie Nemmers, said the idea of adding Wi-Fi to buses has been in the works for several months. “Mr. Hemann had discussed the idea with me last summer and asked if I would do some checking into neighboring districts to see who had it and how it has worked. I reached out to Pocahontas, and they have it on all of their buses. After gathering information, I discussed it with Mr. Hemann, and in October, we really got serious about it.”
Mitch Dowhower, Technology Director for Spencer Community Schools, and Nemmers started researching companies that provided the services, and they decided to work with Kajeet, a company that specializes in working with school districts to extend classroom learning beyond school walls. “They are the number one company and are letting us do this as a trial with no cost to the district,” said Nemmers. During the trial, Nemmers and Dowhower will monitor usage amongst students riding on regular before and after school routes, as well as those traveling as far away as four hours for activities. “We are going to evaluate it when we are done with the trial period, and our goal is to eventually add Wi-Fi to all of the buses. We will start with the activity buses and then move to the buses with longer routes.”
As one of Spencer Schools busiest bus drivers, Diane Feezor was selected to have her bus equipped for the trial period. Feezor has a regular before and after school route with preschool through twelfth graders, and she also drives to many out of town destinations for activities. It seemed like her bus would be the perfect test of usage with the everyday rider, as well as those attending out of town events. “I was quite surprised how excited the little kids were about having Wi-Fi,” said Feezor. She added that the biggest disappointment with all of her passengers is that social media is blocked. Feezor reminds the students that the Wi-Fi is on board to enhance education. The password for the Wi-Fi is posted at the front and back of the bus so kids are able to access everything without needing help. “I have asked the kids, both my route kids and my activity kids, to please tell me if they are using it because I want to know that it is being used, and they are using it. The first thing the kids do when they get on the bus is look up to see the sign with the password, and they are excited when they see that they are on the smart bus.”
Feezor gave the example of going to Sioux City for an activity, giving the kids four hours of homework time on the bus rather than waiting until they get home late at night. “Making good use of their bus time was one of Mr. Hemann’s biggest priorities,” said Nemmers. “We have lots of kids participating in activities, and a concern as a parent and a student is how to get homework done and get good grades while being active in all of these activities, so I think it is a bonus.”
SHS Wrestling Coach, Adam Gress, sees the benefits and said, “We travel Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and that doesn’t leave much time at home for homework. When we get an hour or two on the bus, it creates an awesome opportunity for our wrestlers to get some work done.” Gress hopes that more buses will be equipped with Wi-Fi so the many activities running concurrently all have access to it while traveling.
After writing grants to help with funding, Nemmers hopes that the district will be installing Wi-Fi in more buses over the summer. Nemmers added, “We will install them in house using the help of Dave Hansen , Bus Mechanic, and Mitch.”
Kajeet worked closely with Dowhower to set the filters to help reassure parents and staff, and Dowhower can monitor what sites students are accessing and how much data is used, among other things. “We are able to control how much data the bus Wi-Fi is able to utilize per day and per month. So far, we have hit and raised this limit three times. By far, our highest viewed website is google.com which includes Google Apps,” said Dowhower. "We continue to demand more and more of our students. It becomes difficult for those who spend late nights and early mornings on long bus rides to have the same advantages of those who have time to study and do homework at home. By placing network availability on the bus, we extend to our students the opportunity to learn beyond the classroom."