School buses have long been known as the preferred vehicle to take students to the classroom. Now they’re being used as the classroom.
“We found that when kids could have Internet access in the school bus they would work on their homework and finish it before they got home,” said John Nunes, transportation supervisor for the Vail School District in Arizona. “Students also can get their class preparations before they arrive to school.” The school district first installed WiFi on one of its buses two years ago and now has three operating buses with Internet connectivity.
Recently, 25 school districts across the country have followed in the footsteps of Vail School District to offer WiFi in some of its school buses. Benefits are particularly being seen during the longest routes to and from school, sports programs and other extra-curricular activities. WiFi helps students research for school assignments and offers “clean” Internet surfing, which in turn results in less chatter and other activities that can distract bus drivers.
“Students are more engaged in the kinds of things we want them to do academically,” said Nunes. “It’s better time utilization. They’re happier, and the driver doesn’t have any peripheral distractions.”
Vail School District’s three WiFi buses transport students to and from Empire High School, an all-digital school that opened in the fall of 2005. The school offers wireless Internet access throughout the campus and, instead of textbooks, laptops to incoming freshmen. Students use those laptops for all of their studies until they graduate.
Vail School District’s 17 schools serve students who live in suburban and rural areas, covering almost 520 square miles, so it is common for some of bus routes to be longer than an hour. Adding to that are the long bus rides home for some Empire student-athletes after they compete. School district officials began to see how time on the bus was time lost learning.
For the first WiFi installation, Nunes found a company, Autonet, that loaned routers to the school district, and since Empire high students already had laptops, the school district didn’t spend much to initiate a WiFi pilot project.
Many other schools may not be as technology-savvy as Empire, yet they plan on offering WiFi in their school buses. School districts from California to Texas, Minnesota and the Carolinas contacted Autonet after learning about the Vail School District’s WiFi pilot project. Beginning with one or a few buses can make it easier for school districts to raise the money to pay for the wireless routers — Autonet routers cost $400 each — and laptops needed for a limited number of students.
Having WiFi in school buses stems from the highly publicized Aspirnaut Initiative originally conceived by Vanderbilt University biochemist Bill Hudson. The three-year pilot program, which ended last year, brought laptops, iPods and WiFi to Sheridan (Ark.) School District’s rural school buses.
Dwight Simpson, director of maintenance and transportation for Sheridan School District, said some good things came out of the program, but in the end the interest and number of participants gradually faded. However, he added, “There are certainly places where this would be a great application, especially if there is good reception.”
In Sheridan’s case, the school district itself did not launch the Aspirnaut Initiative, and the program was not viewed as a long-term solution. In the case of Empire High, Nunes said adding WiFi to some of its school buses seemed like a natural extension to the school’s all-digital learning approach.
“The school district as a whole is willing to think outside the box, and we have a corporate culture that promotes looking for innovation,” he said. “The transportation of the student should be considered a major piece of our educational system.”
Reprinted from the November 2011 edition of School Transportation News. All rights reserved.