Lanier High School senior Uriel Agundiz constantly has college-level homework for Advanced Placement literature and statistics classes. He also has two younger brothers in school — and no internet at home.
That is, until Friday, when Agundiz received a wireless hot spot with 10 gigabytes of high-speed monthly data — all for free until he graduates.
“It gives more opportunities to my family,” said Agundiz, 17, in the school library, as he cradled a little cardboard box holding the black rectangular gadget that will connect him to the world. “I’m happy to help them in any way I can.”
Agundiz is one of an estimated 42 percent of high-schoolers in the San Antonio Independent School District who lack reliable internet at home, according to a survey conducted this fall in all the district’s high school English classes.
At Lanier, on the West Side in the city’s poorest ZIP code, that number jumps to 76 percent, said Patti Radle, president of the SAISD board and a longtime resident of the area.
All of the students who said they had little or no internet access — almost 5,200 across SAISD — will receive free hotspots or cellphones in the next two weeks with paid-for data plans, courtesy of Sprint and the 1Million Project Foundation, a national nonprofit seeking to bridge the digital divide.
A luxury decades ago, high-speed home internet now is a necessity for homework, research and college applications. It also can be impossibly expensive for families with limited incomes.
“We cannot be separated from the opportunities that others are offered,” Radle said Friday at a news conference in the Lanier library. “We cannot be left behind.”
More than 1,100 students at Lanier will get the devices, Principal Moises Ortiz said.
“We’ve done a little more to make sure that our kids are competitive,” he said.
More than 12,000 high school students in SAISD took the survey, an 83 percent response rate, according to the district’s information technology department.
Given during class time, it asked whether students had reliable internet access at home. Those who said they did not were then asked which device they needed: a cellphone or a hot spot.
Both come with 10-gigabyte data plans. Parents had to sign permission forms for their children to receive the devices, which have filters for adult content and malicious software.
Across all 16 high schools, SAISD is distributing about 2,800 cellphones and more than 2,400 hot spots, district spokeswoman Leslie Price said.
The students keep the devices. The data is free until graduation, at which point students decide whether to assume the cost of a plan, Superintendent Pedro Martinez said.
SAISD wasn’t given a monetary value for the devices and data plans, but the district will apply for the same grant for future students, Martinez said.
“We have to become a driver in bringing resources to our community,” he said. “We’re pushing more technology across our schools in general, but we can’t even be thinking at that higher level if we don’t take care of those basic needs.”
On ExpressNews.com: “Digital divide” taking on new meaning at schools
Teachers in SAISD also have struggled with deficient classroom technology. The school district is using more than $7 million in grant funding to install a high-speed fiber network by next summer for all schools and offices.
School libraries have extended hours for students who need to use the computers and internet, but not everyone can limit themselves to working in the library. Students might have other extracurricular activities or no transportation during library hours, or they might have too much work to finish.
Agundiz’s teachers give assignments on Google Classroom, an online platform, and provide email addresses for students who have questions. Without the internet, Agundiz has no way to contact them when he runs into a stumbling block while working at home.
In AP Lit, he’s reading John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” but there aren’t enough books in the class set, so he sometimes has to find it online.
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Also picking up a free hot spot was Hector Martinez, a 16-year-old junior at Lanier who is dual-enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin for a physics class, earning him college credit. The university handles assignments and communications through an online portal.
He has internet at home, but it’s sometimes so slow that completing assignments on tight deadlines is an exercise in managing panic and frustration.
Martinez and Agundiz said they don’t have computers, but do homework on their cellphones, especially assignments that involve watching slideshows and recording short answers. They also can watch popular tutorials from the College Board and Khan Academy on their phones.
Agundiz said he usually writes papers for AP Lit by hand. But the hot spot will help him there, too.
“I can look up synonyms and antonyms to make my writing stand out,” he said.
Alia Malik covers several school districts and the University of Texas at San Antonio in the Bexar County area. Read her on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @AliaAtSAEN
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