LOCKHART, Texas (KXAN) – Sitting at a picnic table outside her rural Lockhart, Texas, home, sixth-grader Azul Cabrera says she has always loved to read.

“Reading is a big part of my life because when I’m frustrated or stressed I read a good book, and my troubles go away,” she said. 

Shy and articulate, Azul seamlessly switches between speaking English at school and Spanish at home. She loves school and connecting to a world beyond Lockhart through books. 

“When she’s in the car, she’s reading.  When she’s in the house, she’s reading,” said her mother Ana. “When she’s outside, she’s reading.” 

When in-person school was suspended in the spring, Lockhart ISD quickly shifted to an online learning model, but Azul’s family didn’t have reliable internet. 

She was disconnected — from her teachers, her classmates and the online math and reading programs she used to practice new skills. Azul was also disconnected, her mother said, from the education that’s key in connecting her bright daughter to a bright future. 

“She wants to be a lawyer, and I tell her, ‘it’s easy for you because you can read well and do well in school,'” Ana said with quiet pride. “But, I was worried about her when she goes to junior high. How are they going to do it? Without internet, it’s a lot of work.” 

Azul’s family was one of hundreds of families left disconnected in Lockhart. As district administrators worked to pivot to virtual learning in March, they surveyed parents about their internet connectivity and learned at least 40% of students in Lockhart ISD lacked access to reliable internet. That meant no matter how hard teachers were working to deliver virtual education to keep students learning, more than two thousand students were left out. 

“When the internet didn’t work, I was worried I’d be left behind,” Azul said. 

A nationwide problem

Seventy percent of students in Lockhart are economically disadvantaged, and the income barrier to connectivity is nationwide.  Across the U.S., almost 17 million children lack the high-speed home internet access needed for online learning, according to an Alliance for Excellent Education analysis published in July 2020.

An Alliance for Excellent Education analysis found students of color, students living in rural areas and students from low-income families have less access to reliable internet.
An Alliance for Excellent Education analysis found students of color, students living in rural areas and students from low-income families have less access to reliable internet.

The same study found a persisting digital divide for students of color. Nearly one-third of Black and Hispanic students do not have high-speed home internet in the U.S., compared to one-fifth of white families. Seventy-six percent of families in Lockhart ISD are Hispanic.

And, many rural areas simply don’t have physical access to internet providers. Across the U.S., 36% of families in rural areas don’t have high-speed internet connectivity at home. In Lockhart, 60% of students live outside the city in rural areas.  

“No longer will we allow anyone to say, ‘you have students living in poverty or who are ELL learners or who are in a rural area, so they will have less opportunity,'” says Christina Courson with Lockhart ISD. “We’re not letting that be a reason or an excuse for not trying. How can we open these opportunities up for them like anyone else?”

When Lockhart ISD officials learned many families like the Cabreras faced both financial and technological barriers to connectivity, they decided to make some creative cash and construction decisions to solve the problem.

‘Let’s build our own towers

The first step to getting Lockhart’s students connected was moving money and moving it fast.

When he realized that solving the district’s connectivity problem was going to be more complex than handing out a few hotspots, Superintendent Mark Estrada brought a budget amendment to the board in April asking to divert money from other projects into funding to create the district’s own free wireless internet service called LionLink.

A technician works to install an antenna on a home  (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)
A technician works to install an antenna on a home (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

The board approved the change, and plans to build a network of seven towers to connect 500 families began immediately.

For families like the Cabreras who live in very rural areas, just building the towers and installing home routers wasn’t enough. Crews had to go to individual homes and install tall antennas on roofs and in the middle of farmland to pick up signal from the towers. 

Installing new technology in remote areas in the Texas heat wasn’t seamless. The district hoped to have all seven towers up by the start of school in August, but two were delayed and some home antenna installations took longer than expected. Only 200 families were connected by the start of school in August.

To fill the gap, students living in areas with accessible wireless signals were given temporary hot spots. Rural students who lived in dead zones had the option to go to one of the district’s staff-monitored Lion Study Labs set up at four campuses where they could get connected and participate in virtual learning.

A technician adjusts an antenna in a family’s pasture to connect to one of the seven towers installed to create Lockhart ISD’s free wireless internet service. (Lockhart ISD Photo)

Estrada says the total cost for the connectivity project will add up to $600,000. But, spending that amount of money on technology means putting other projects on hold – projects that some districts just can’t afford to sideline.

“Do we refinish that floor in the kitchen or upgrade HVAC equipment across the district? Those types of capital expenses are the things we were judging and prioritizing this over,” Estrada said.

Estrada said he’s grateful the district was able to divert money to get kids online so students like Azul could keep up with her classmates.

“This is about equity,” Estrada said. “Every one of our Lockhart Lions needs to have access to the opportunities they deserve to grow and truly thrive.”

Staying connected

More than a month into having Wi-Fi at home, Azul says LionLink hasn’t helped calm the inevitable nerves that come with the first few weeks of junior high, but the service has made completing her school work much easier. 

 “I learn a lot because the internet is fast, and I can do my work fast and see what my teachers want me to do,” she said. 

The district’s latest data shows LionLink has helped more than 1,300 students get online and get learning since May. At the end of the school year last spring, 65% of students were engaged most of the time in online lessons. Now, that number is up to 93%.

The district also tracks student progress every month through subject-based computer programs. Superintendent Estrada says the district’s goal every year is to help students advance one and a half years in English and math each school year. He says although the district won’t be able to specifically determine if the internet is behind that growth, he believes without equitable access, the district would fall short of that goal. 

The last two towers are expected to be up in October, and LISD educators will continue to check in with students and track how many are staying engaged with virtual learning throughout the year.

 Azul’s mother said she sees the progress in her daughter’s online learning already. 

“The free internet is better for us – for all people who live here,” she said. “I was worried before, but now I’m happy. I’m not worried for Azul.” 

Azul isn’t worried either. She’s relieved she can quickly communicate with her teachers and classmates online and excited to be connected to her learning community again. 

“I don’t know what I might become,” she said, “but I think school will take me very far.” 

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.