The image of two elementary students toiling away on their laptops outside of the Castleberry ISD administration building at night is still burned in administrator Renee Smith-Faulkner’s head three years later.

Seeing those children — who did not have internet access at home — that night led Smith-Faulker, the district’s associate superintendent of teaching, learning and innovation, to propose a plan to build cell towers to offer the essential utility to students. Over three years, that idea became a reality: Students can now access district internet from home.

“Whether people like it or not, these are the tools that our kids use to learn,” Smith-Faulker said.

Although the district covers a compact seven-mile area, Castleberry ISD was ahead of the curve and has valuable lessons that could help neighboring Fort Worth ISD as it begins to roll out a similar project. On the eastern half of the Metroplex, Dallas ISD has implemented a targeted internet access plan that also shows what may be in store for Fort Worth schools.

Castleberry ISD Associate Superintendent of Teaching, Learning and Innovation Renee Smith-Faulkner proposed the plan to build the wireless connection towers. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Castleberry ISD shows providing internet to children can be done affordably; while Dallas ISD demonstrates it can be deployed quickly, even in the middle of a health crisis affecting every part of society.

The pandemic has revealed how crucial it is for students to have home internet access. Although many students may be able to get online on a smartphone, they cannot do the same with their school-issued devices and complete homework that often requires higher speeds and a more stable internet connection. An estimated 60,000 Fort Worth residents do not have home internet access.

Fort Worth ISD is aiming to have free wireless internet for students who live in the southeast part of the district by Aug. 16, the first day of the new school year. Three temporary cell tower sites, each leased for $4,500 a month, will be established at Dunbar High School, Morningside Middle School and Rosemont Middle School. Permanent towers will replace the mobile units at the campuses. The district expects the temporary units to cost up to $162,000.

Eventually, towers will be built in seven of the poorest ZIP codes in Fort Worth ISD — 76102, 76103, 76104, 76105, 76115, 76119 and 76164. This past school year, more than 85% of the 76,858 students enrolled in the district were economically disadvantaged.

Paying for internet project

Fort Worth ISD plans to cover the cost of its cell tower project through a property tax increase voters approved in November and federal COVID-19 stimulus dollars. The tax rate increased to $1.378 from $1.282 per $100 valuation, generating an additional $44 million in revenue.

The average homeowner in Fort Worth ISD saw their tax bill increase from $2,044.98 in the 2019-20 school year to $2,258 in the 2020-21 school year — a $213.21 hike. The average taxable value for a home in 2019 was $159,515 and increased to $163,827 the following year.

“At the core of the plan is to reach disadvantaged students and provide them with high-speed internet to close the equity gap,” Marlon Shears, the district’s chief information technology officer, told the Fort Worth Report.

Shears and his team are looking at what other districts have accomplished to get internet to students. He brings his own expertise — he worked on Dallas ISD’s internet project. 

Fort Worth ISD anticipates the initial trio of towers should meet the needs of 25% of families in need of internet access. The first phase is expected not to exceed $3.6 million. The remaining 75% should be addressed beginning in December. Each tower is expected to cost about $400,000.

To access the district-provided internet, students will receive routers that allow only their school-issued devices to connect. The internet will have the same filters that are on district computers. 

“This has been a long time coming,” Fort Worth ISD trustee Daphne Brookins told the Report. 

‘Economical way to do this’

The most valuable lesson Castleberry ISD learned from its internet rollout was that it did not need to be a costly venture. 

To provide internet access to its 3,617 students, the district spent $225,000 for each of its three towers, spending a total of $675,000. That comes out to about $186.62 per student.

Smith-Faulkner, a Castleberry ISD associate superintendent, was unequivocal that districts — regardless of their size — do not need to spend millions of dollars to launch a few towers to provide internet for students. 

The district paid for each tower over the course of three budget cycles. Castleberry ISD administrators and the school board wanted to ensure its plan was sustainable and did not overburden taxpayers, the associate superintendent said. One tower was built each year starting in 2017.

“It’s the most economical way to do this,” Smith-Faulkner said.

Despite their obvious size differences, Castleberry and Fort Worth ISDs have similar percentages of economically disadvantaged students at around 85%.

Fort Worth ISD plans to use temporary cell towers to provide wireless internet to students around three schools. The service will be available to them by August. (Contributed by Fort Worth ISD)

Fort Worth ISD’s plan will help an estimated 21,000 students, costing the district about $171.43 per child. That figure, though, only accounts for the first phase of Fort Worth ISD’s internet access endeavor. 

Castleberry ISD’s final tower was completed in February 2020 — right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The district took only one day off after spring break to coordinate how to deploy remote learning because it had the infrastructure and software ready to be used for it.

“So by Tuesday after spring break, we had the ability to have 100% of our kids up and running and (learning) remotely,” Smith-Faulkner said.

The pandemic caused other districts, including Fort Worth and Dallas ISDs, to begin looking into building towers on their campuses to provide students with internet.

Wi-Fi can be deployed quickly

It took less than a year for Dallas ISD to broadcast internet to students at home. The district started constructing towers in November and had internet inside students’ homes within the first months of this year.

Dallas ISD has four towers broadcasting internet service into homes, with a fifth set to go online soon and an expansion in consideration. The Dallas school district constructed the towers on top of a school or somewhere on the campus. The metal towers jut 90 to 100 feet into the air.

Fort Worth ISD initially planned to have its towers running within six months of voters approving a tax increase in November. However, district officials wanted to be further along by this point, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. The project is now on a different timeline.

Days into the pandemic, Jack Kelanic, chief technology officer, and other Dallas ISD administrators started exploring their options to get internet to students. Kelanic looked to other districts for ideas for more permanent solutions than providing cellular hotspots to families. He came across a district in Utah and Castleberry ISD using towers to send internet into homes.

“There were a few people that we had our eye on and learned from those experiences,” Kelanic said. “Now I think you see there are more and more districts, not just in Texas, but across the country taking this approach.”

Dallas ISD has spent about $4.5 million to build its five cell towers to boost school’s Wi-Fi networks into families’ homes.

A key lesson Dallas ISD learned as it launched its internet network was administrators needed to think about the user experience and try to make it as seamless as possible for students. Administrators experimented with various devices to make connecting to the new network from home as easy as possible.

“Literally, all (students) have to do is open up their district-issued computer, supply their username and password … and it takes them right in,” Kalenic said. “They don’t have to type in a separate Wi-Fi code or password or anything like that.”

Equity first, academic boost later

Equity was at the heart of all three districts’ projects. Administrators wanted to bridge the digital gap that the pandemic only exacerbated as well as ensure all students, regardless of their families’ income, had home internet access.

Fort Worth ISD recently set up one of its mobile cell towers to provide internet to nearby students. (Contributed by Fort Worth ISD)

Fort Worth and Dallas ISDs had similar approaches to decide who would be the first to tap into their networks. Administrators in both districts targeted which of their communities would receive the service based on the areas with the most need.

Fort Worth ISD used a survey to determine which areas would first get internet access. Dallas ISD also used a survey and data from the Child Poverty Action Lab to identify where to set up towers.

“The internet plan is very targeted and focused on student achievement. Students with the greatest need will be getting access,” said Brookins, the Fort Worth school board’s second vice president. “Why was that specificity so important?  Focusing on students that lack equitable access to the internet allows the district to focus on closing the achievement gap for those students, by directing the necessary resources to those most in need.”

The pandemic exposed the need for districts to provide at-home internet access for students. However, it remains to be seen how much this service will boost student performance.

Across the state, results from the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness show more than 800,000 students fell behind in math. Fort Worth, Dallas and Castleberry school districts all showed declines in math despite their internet plans.

Building network not an easy task

Fort Worth and Dallas ISDs can leverage other districts’ expertise as they expand internet service across their large areas. Castleberry ISD did not have that luxury. It had to learn on the fly as it assembled each cell tower. 

But Smith-Faulkner was quick to point out her district has an edge over its larger counterparts.

“In a small district, we have the advantage because we can make quick adjustments to the system to ensure that it works for our 3,600 students,” the Castleberry ISD associate superintendent said. “But in a larger district, trying to do this and in a short timeframe, there’s going to be frustration.”

Establishing an entirely new wireless network is not an easy task.

“There are going to be things not working. There are going to be places that they can’t reach. Do they have a plan for that? Just lots of money alone doesn’t make this thing work,” Smith-Faulkner said.

Other districts, the Castleberry ISD administrator said, should recognize that a cell tower project is not 100% foolproof and will not work for all residents. Other solutions, such as hotspots, will have to be used to bring home internet to students.

Building the network is a difficult and technical job, Smith-Faulkner said, but the next part of the project is even harder.

“You can put the technology there, but you also have to have great support and training in place to be sure that the teachers feel very comfortable with using it, and they get better at using the resources in a way that is instructionally productive to produce student success,” she said. “That’s tough.”

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.

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