A Kansas town and Google roll toward the future with Wi-Fi on school buses

What do you do when you’re stuck for an hour or more on a school bus?

In one Kansas school district, you log onto the internet and you do your homework.

On Friday, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and other dignitaries came to Council Grove, population 2,079, to celebrate a budding program to equip rural school transportation with Wi-Fi service.

They call it “Rolling Study Hall” and the kids love it because they can do their Web-based assignments on the long trip to and from school.

Ace Monahan, the quarterbRck on the junior high football team, said he does his homework on the bus first thing. That gets it out of the way and frees up leisure time later for playing football and video games.

Although he only has a 20-minute ride, “I can get it all done because it’s usually not that hard,” he said.

His classmate, Adeiah Heffner, said it’s made her busy life a little bit easier.

“When I get home, I have like a whole bunch of chores to do and I have to like take care of my animals and stuff, and I have sports to do after that,” she said. “So I only have like a 30-minute time span to do homework because I have to go to bed at nine.”

On Friday, Heffner, a seventh grader, got to demonstrate her mobile homework skills to the nation’s top telecommunications official, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

Pai was Heffner’s seatmate as she completed a computer coding assignment the students were given Friday morning.

Earlier, Pai gave the kids a pep talk on the digital divide that separates rural and urban America and how the FCC has made it a priority to get broadband access out to where they live.

“All of this is being done to give you a better future,” Pai said.

Pai is a native Kansan and grew up on the outskirts of Parsons. He was also a bus kid with an hour-long ride home.

“Thirty-five years ago, I was exactly in your position,” Pai said. “I remember very keenly what it was like to have to wait to get home — partly in order to watch cartoons, but also to do my homework.”

The Wi-Fi equipped buses were made possible by a partnership between the Morris County school system, the national Consortium for School Networking and Google, said Superintendent Aron Dody.

“They selected USD 415 as one of only 15 Rolling Study Hall locations in the nation and we’re the only one in Kansas,” he said. “That’s pretty cool.”

USD 415 operates four bus routes and some students at the corners of the 540-square-mile district spend an hour each way getting to and from school.

Many parents in the district can’t afford, or in some cases even get, internet service at their homes. And that puts those kids at a disadvantage in learning, Dody said.

“We are a Google school who utilizes Google classroom and other Web-based applications,” he said. “Most of our content is online, most of our resources are online.”

The Wi-Fi equipped buses carry 165 students daily, providing them with 4G mobile service on the road. Four teachers stepped forward to ride with the kids to and from school each day and act as mobile tutors, Dody said.

The district opted for a portable system of servers and antennas that can be moved from bus to bus, so students on long trips to debate tournaments or to away games can use it too, he said.

So how does the school keep the students on task, working on their homework instead of watching Taylor Swift videos or playing Fortnight?

“We have filters so they’re limited on what they can do,” Dody explained. “They can’t get on Facebook, they can’t stream certain YouTube-type videos that aren’t educational.”

The students do have some access to select age-appropriate entertainment programming for when they finish their work.

And it’s cut down dramatically on the kind of misbehavior that generally happens when you have a bunch of bored kids trapped on a bus, Dody said.

“It makes the bus drivers’ life a lot easier too,” he said.

Kansas state Board of Education member Ben Jones said Wi-Fi equipped buses could be even more useful in rural western Kansas, where the distances between schools are even greater and the rides to activities are even longer.

He said he plans to discuss it with his fellow board members and see if it’s something they would want to take statewide.

“We’ll see how well this goes and if it goes really well, we’ll speed up the timeline and see if we can roll this out,” he said.

Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.