December Community Award Spotlight: City of South Bend and South Bend Community School Corporation

Every day, members of our communities rise to meet unexpected challenges. From children to parents and from caregivers to businesses, we have all been asked to step up and become leaders. We’ve faced and pivoted to adapt and grow through our everchanging world due to unforeseen events that affect our daily lives. No action is too small, and together our impact is large.

Your actions should be recognized and celebrated. Our communities are the foundation of our society, and we stand stronger together. PLTW is proud to celebrate diverse communities and its members who exhibit collaboration, leadership, and entrepreneurship in service across the nation. As a result, we have created the PLTW Community Celebration Awards to recognize communities that have come together to care for each other in times of need. Join us in celebrating the following community this month!

The shift to virtual learning brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has proven challenging for families across the country, in part due to technology accessibility. While many schools have provided students with the devices needed to access their classrooms remotely, families are not always equipped with the also necessary broadband internet. With support of grant funding, the City of South Bend, South Bend Community School Corporation, and enFocus developed an innovative plan to alleviate this concern – Wi-Fi enabled school buses!

South Bend Community Schools, located in northern Indiana, serves approximately 16,000 students and estimates that about 30 percent of those students do not have access to broadband internet at home. Citywide Classroom South Bend addresses this digital divide via two key methods: 1) bringing internet into student households and 2) expanding neighborhood Wi-Fi accessibility with Wi-Fi enabled school buses.

The idea for mobile Wi-Fi on buses initially came up before the pandemic sent students home for remote learning. In early January, the district equipped 10 buses with Wi-Fi in an effort to provide internet access for students with long bus commutes or those involved in after-school activities, so that they could complete schoolwork before arriving home. Some buses were also deployed to neighborhoods where the district knew access to the internet was lacking.

“We recognize learning doesn’t stop once the school day ends,” says South Bend Chief Technology Officer Patrick Stalvey. “So we wanted to enable students to continue their educational experience while being transported to their residences or after-school events.”

The district was just about to release 10 additional school buses when the pandemic hit and school buildings closed. Those buses were now critical to student learning for the remainder of the school year.

"We were doing it because we knew we had a need," South Bend Assistant Superintendent of Operations Rene Sanchez said. "We didn't know that we were going to have this level of need, but because we planned ahead and took into account that idea of equitable access, then we were prepared."

This school year, 35 Wi-Fi equipped buses can be found throughout the city, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. A Google map helps families locate the buses.

“Our school board recently approved every bus in our fleet – approximately 200 buses – will be equipped with Wi-Fi and out on the streets by mid-January,” South Bend Chief Technology Officer Patrick Stalvey said. 

Expanding available neighborhood Wi-Fi with the Wi-Fi-enabled school buses is just one piece of the puzzle. The upcoming winter months will bring challenges for students to connect outdoors. That hasn’t stopped South Bend. By bringing in partners like the City of South Bend and enFocus, South Bend Community Schools has been able to bring the internet into students’ homes. By providing free unlimited internet for one year, students in need can get connected without leaving the safety of their homes. 

Students and families have responded to the Wi-Fi buses, stating what began as a frustrating experience with remote learning is now a relatively familiar experience. Students and families have shared that they feel more confident with technology use and that learning is occurring remotely.

“The urgency of bridging the digital divide has become even more clear during the shift to remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This program will help connect South Bend’s kids with reliable internet access at home so they can continue their education.
James Mueller, City of South Bend Mayor (City Quotes from CCSB press releases)
“The idea behind Citywide Classroom South Bend was that we need to provide a suite of resources to students so that they can learn from anywhere in the city. At-home internet will anchor student e-learning, but hotspots will be their portable option and community access points will supplement as well.”
Denise Linn Riedl, City of South Bend Chief Innovation Officer
“enFocus has been proud to partner with the South Bend Community Schools each year. This most recent collaboration through Citywide Classroom South Bend has been our most impactful to date. With enFocus Fellows working alongside SB Schools staff, we’ve been able to connect over 400 households. That’s 400 more students that are able to get their schoolwork done at home! We are working to increase that number to at least 2,000 households in the early months of 2021.”
Gillian Shaw, enFocus Program Director 
"While there are a great many needs, there is also a great sense of soul and heart and care that this community has and demonstrates daily as they help us to ensure that all of our scholars have their basic needs met." 
Dr. Stuart Greene, South Bend Community School Corporation School Board Member