A child sitting other side of the laptop

Wi-Fi expansion to impact 1,100 Lafayette Parish students at home

Photo caption: A Lafayette Parish School System student completes coursework remotely from home on a Chromebook during the fall 2020 semester. LPSS is partnering with several groups in the community to install and operate a pilot filtered academic Wi-Fi 6 network for students living in the vicinity of Northside High School, David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy and J.W. Faulk Elementary School. Photo by Scott Clause.

By Leigh Guidry

The Lafayette Parish School System is partnering with other organizations to expand internet access around three schools on the northside of the city.

Approximately $1.1 million will provide a filtered academic Wi-Fi 6 network for students living near J.W. Faulk Elementary, Northside High School and David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy.

About 1,100 LPSS students live within the network’s 2-mile radius, extending wireless internet access beyond campus borders, so they can actually use the Chromebooks and devices provided at the beginning of the year.

Superintendent Irma Trosclair said this effort is a step not only toward equitable learning but equitable instruction, because teachers can provide meaningful work outside the classroom.

“Our teachers will be able to actually assign assignments their students can do at home, which they are not currently able to do,” Trosclair said. 

The network was designed by SmartWAVE Technologies and will utilize about 200 Commscope/Rukus Wi-Fi 6 access points — or radios to be mounted on street lights — and LUS Fiber backhaul.

This pilot is just phase one, to be launched during the 2022-23 school year, with the goal to begin here and expand over the years across the parish. 

“This project has the potential, across multiple phases, to make distance learning opportunities ubiquitous for all the district’s students parishwide year-round,” reads a release attached to a Lafayette Parish School Board meeting agenda.

School closures in spring 2020 highlighted the technology gap faced by students across the state, as 35 parishes reported to the Louisiana Department of Education that more than 50% of their students do not have home internet access.

For some families the barrier is lack of infrastructure. For many, it’s cost. Of the approximately 32,000 students in the Lafayette school system, 64% are considered economically disadvantaged, according to a news release.

“It’s an important first step toward greater equity,” said Todd Mouton, executive director of the Pugh Family Foundation.

Trosclair said this is a giant step toward providing equitable opportunities for kids to learn, which is critical.

“Ahead of academic gaps are always opportunity gaps,” she said. “We will never close academic gaps if we don’t work to close opportunity gaps for children.”

The special meeting Wednesday night was called for this item alone, and members unanimously approved a five-year cooperative endeavor agreement to make this pilot a reality.

The agreement connects the school system with LUS Fiber and Link & Learn LLC, which began investing in expanding connectivity for students by developing the LPSS Help Desk and working with local internet providers to offer services for $10 a month to qualifying families at the beginning of the pandemic. 

Project development, construction, and operating costs are being funded by LPSS in partnership with its business and philanthropic partners, according to board documents.

The district will shoulder about half of the cost — $550,000 that will go to LUS Fiber for the purpose of reimbursing LUS Fiber for the expenses incurred in the installation, integration, completion and initial servicing of the network. These services going forward are estimated to cost about $300,000 per year, according to the agreement.

Link & Learn project partners have covered the rest, purchasing equipment and paying for the engineering services of Info-Link, USA, in affiliation with SmartWAVE, to design a dedicated Wi-Fi network, according to the cooperative endeavor agreement. 

These partners include the William C. Schumacher Family Foundation, the Pugh Family Foundation, InfoLink-USA and LUS Fiber. “This is all society’s challenge,” Mouton said. “It should not just be on the back of educators and the school system. … The belief is that complex community challenges require complex, collaborative solutions.”