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Community effort provides students with MiFi devices
There are laptops in the classrooms at Lakeside Middle School for students who forget to bring a device. Here, Presley Ross picks up one. - photo by Jennifer Sami

Students have long been beneficiaries of the Forsyth County school system’s approach to cutting edge technology in the classroom.

But thanks to a new program, and the fundraising efforts of some 50 local businesses, more students will be able to have that same access at home.

Though the majority of the some 40,500 students in the school district have Internet access at home, there are about 7,000 who don’t. To complete their schoolwork, many of those must rely on public libraries and businesses that offer free wireless Internet access, or Wi-Fi.

“The odds of parents taking their kids to a Starbucks at 8 p.m. to do homework, that’s just not going to happen,” said Peggie Morrow

Morrow and husband Jim of Morrow Family Medicine were looking to start a fundraiser for the community. They found a “perfect fit” with the school system’s Bring Your Own Technology, or BYOT, program.

The effort encourages students to bring tablets, laptops and smart phones to class for lesson plans without the system having to provide the technology.

The two decided to hold a golf tournament last month with the goal to raise about $2,000. Then, more than 50 companies in the community — among them, Jackson Healthcare, Georgia Urology, Champion Physical Therapy, Northside Hospital-Forsyth, Community Business Bank, Giorgio’s, Billy Howell Ford, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, MRI & Imaging of Cumming, Resurgens Orthopaedics and Hansgrohe — stepped in.

Last week, Morrow presented a check from the Forsyth PTA Golf Benefit for about $29,383, which will go largely toward bringing the same Internet connectivity students have in the classroom home.

“It just amazed us,” she said. “It’s going to change a lot of children’s lives and it’s going to change a lot of families’ lives by being able to have the MiFi at home.

“We were just so impressed with what Forsyth had done with BYOT, so to be able to enhance that for them and give them some funding to move forward, we were just thrilled.”

Funding from the tournament likely will go toward a second round of devices for students without Internet access at home, through a partnership with a company called Kajeet.

The company recently shifted its focus from smartphones for youth to providing Internet access for educational purposes through its SmartSpot device. The effort aims to address the broadband access gap between school and home.

Michael Flood, Kajeet vice president of education markets, said 95 MiFi devices have been sent to the school system and distributed to students. A MiFi device can provide WiFi access for several devices.

“The service is pre-paid ... and unused service stays the district’s forever,” he said. “It’s a lower cost service, so we’re saving the district money. It is in network, CIPA-compliant filtered, so they’re able to be compliant with federal policies and then in all of the reporting, we’re able to provide them data on how it’s being used and how students are benefiting.”

To ensure they’re complying with CIPA, short for Children’s Internet Protection Act, Kajeet is able to block access to certain Web sites, as well as game locations, social media and whatever else the school system chooses.

Kajeet also collects data on each device, so the system can ensure they are used responsibly.

Kajeet is a Maryland-based company, but Flood lives in Lawrenceville and serves on the Consortium for School Networking, CoSN, with Bailey Mitchell, the Forsyth school system’s longtime technology director. He is also on the Forsyth Digital Equity Task Force, created earlier this year to work toward equity issues for digital access.

The idea for the task force came from Mitchell, who is retiring from the system Thursday to work in the private sector.

He said his co-workers have “teased me quite a bit about my travel in the last couple of years. We get a lot of really good ideas.”

It was on a recent trip to Uruguay and Argentina, where every child has both computer access and “ubiquitous connectivity” between school and home.

“It’s institutional for them to make sure they’re making the investment in their students to have a computer and to have access to the Internet and have access to high-quality digital resources and focus on project-based classroom and inquiry,” he said. “Their school buildings were really old, kind of dilapidated ... and yet what they were doing with technology access was incredibly impressive.”

Noting Forsyth’s affluence, Mitchell said he wanted to see similar universal Internet access in the county, which is where Kajeet stepped in.

Last year, the school system played host to many tours, welcoming educators from other counties, states and nations to see how the BYOT program has been implemented.

Mitchell said money earned from those tours went toward buying 95 pre-paid SmartSpot devices at a rate far lower than a standard cellular service provider.

Based on successful data, Mitchell said the plan is to increase that number to help serve more families, particularly those with several children who could benefit from access.

During the check presentation last week, Jim Morrow said he was “looking forward to more families having access like that.”

It’s just one more way Flood said Forsyth will continue to be ahead of the technology curve.

“Forsyth has really been on the cutting edge,” he said. “Forsyth is an innovator and is very well-respected, very well thought of throughout the country and even outside the United States.”

With nearly $30,000 from local business support, Jim Morrow said they are “looking forward to more families having access.”

“Forsyth County leads the nation in BYOT endeavors. It’s remarkable what’s happening here,” he said. “The lives they’re affecting every single day is just remarkable.”