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Jade Communications' tower within the Centennial School District R-1 pictured on Friday, July 16, 2021, in San Luis, Colorado. The tower has a 15-mile transmission radius for broadband reception with fiber optic cable back-up. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun.)

SAN LUIS — Tucked in a canyon deep in Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo mountains, Kimba Rael’s home doesn’t always get cell service or a stable connection to the internet.

“It’s a ‘dead zone,’” said Rael, principal of Centennial School District R-1 in San Luis near Colorado’s southern border.

One of the few live spots where Rael and her family members can use their cellphones and also jump online: the small church cemetery about a mile from their house in El Rito.

“You hopefully can get a better signal, but even there you can only get a couple of bars,” she said of the cemetery, located high on a hill overlooking San Luis and the valley.

The lack of connectivity is a familiar problem for other families in and around San Luis. Another family marked an X on their kitchen counter to show the one spot in their house they get service from a portable internet hot spot, said Toby Melster, superintendent of Centennial School District R-1.

Melster is determined to carve out a new path to the internet for his students so they don’t have to keep going to extreme measures simply to find a home connection. Even as his district welcomes students back for in-person classes on Wednesday, he wants to make sure that kids can learn at home — giving them a chance to work on homework, stay in touch with classmates and access the internet for learning.

The rural district, which educates fewer than 200 students, is investing more than $3 million in state grant funds in a long-term project to transmit its own internet signal to the far-reaching corners of the valley so students can connect to that signal at home. It’s an ambitious undertaking for the tiny district — located less than 20 miles from the New Mexico border — but one that Melster hopes will give many students what they’ve lacked for so long: “strong, reliable, consistent connectivity at their house.”

And it’s the kind of project that will give students who are part of the San Luis district learning opportunities they’re often deprived of, Rael said.  

“I feel like because of some of these (connectivity) issues, we only get to go so far,” she said.

Toby Melster views a Colorado OIT Broadband Map of current broadband and fiber optic coverage in the Centennial School District R-1 area on Friday, July 16, 2021. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun.)

Adding to the district’s sense of urgency are the many students who live in poverty in and around San Luis. The Colorado Department of Education recently ranked districts based on those that serve both a high population of students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch, a federal indicator of poverty, and a high percentage of students who have little to no access to broadband.

Centennial School District R-1 found itself at the top of that list, with more than 86% of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch last year.

The challenge of keeping students engaged during the pandemic, especially those from low-income families and those with limited internet access, made the spring of 2020 an especially complicated time for the rural district. Like their peers in many other districts across the state, teachers and administrators in San Luis scrambled to figure out how to reach students and prevent a lapse in learning.

They reverted back to paper packets for the short term, designating days when parents could come and pick up the packets and school meals.

For all the added challenges, Melster said the twin problems of poverty and poor connectivity likely helped the district secure state funding for its pursuit of broader internet access.

The district received separate state grants under the Connecting Colorado Students Grant Program, which aims to help students, teachers and other school staff secure a broadband connection for online learning. The state awarded Centennial School District R-1 grants of $150,000 and $1.5 million. The district received additional funding of more than $1.3 million, for a total of more than $3 million.

The grants didn’t set any pressing deadlines, but Melster feels pressure to invest the money in infrastructure as soon as possible.

“The longer I drag it out,” he said, “the more these students go without consistent, reliable connectivity.”

The grant program gave more than $1.2 million to 25 districts across Colorado last fall and an additional $20 million to 39 districts during winter and spring.

Districts also can use federal stimulus funding to improve connectivity for their students and staff and take advantage of other state and federal grant programs, such as TMobile’s Project 10 Million. The $2 million project, a collaboration of TMobile, the state education department, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office and Gov. Jared Polis’ office, gave dollars to districts so they could purchase hot spots for families and explore options for new towers and even signal-boosting trucks.

Still, many Colorado districts and students are living without a reliable internet connection, said Jennifer Okes, the chief operating officer for the state education department.

“Unfortunately, this is a larger issue than can be addressed by CDE,” Okes said in a statement. “In many areas of Colorado, there are geographic limitations to building effective networks. This requires extensive infrastructure buildout and collaboration across local utilities, internet service providers and school districts.”

Parked at the cemetery at 9:30 p.m.

As much as the pandemic has battered Colorado, Melster is glad it has at least elevated the state’s attention to the digital divide. While state officials have long recognized the need to improve internet access, little action has followed, he said.

For Centennial High School senior Brandon Herrera, 17, that’s meant enduring more stress amid the coronavirus. With a grandpa and brother who both have diabetes, his family has taken many precautions to keep them safe.

But the complications of navigating remote learning have also weighed on the Sanford teen, particularly since he has an easier time absorbing his lessons when he’s learning in the classroom, rather than at home on his computer. Brandon struggled to keep his grades up while taking classes from home, often distracted by his mother cooking meals or his siblings running around. His family’s Wi-Fi connection, at times “jumpy,” didn’t help either. 

Brandon said he had to share the connection with his siblings as they completed their homework and with his mom as she worked from home. The strain on the bandwidth often kept him from using the video feed during classes, which meant could only hear his teachers’ voices during demonstrations and lessons. His family paid for a stronger internet connection, but still it wasn’t reliable, with winds and bad weather shifting the satellite dish on the roof of his house.

“A lot of the times when I was in a Zoom call, I would just lose connection and I would basically just miss out on hours of education,” he said.

The letter S, for Sanford, Colorado, decorates Little Flat Top Mountain in Conejos County. The town is named for Silas Sanford Smith, a cousin of Joseph Smith, the prophet and founder of the Mormon Church. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Brandon failed multiple courses, including an art class and an independent-study law class, which hurt his grade point average. He switched classes when he returned to in-person learning and was able to pull some grades up from B’s and C’s to A’s and B’s.

He knows his family and his classmates need reliable internet, but he also questions whether a signal from the district would be as strong as the one his parents pay for, which he said has improved from his first days of remote learning during the pandemic. He added that he also ran into issues with his school’s internet throughout in-person learning, noting that it would take five minutes for a link to open up when he used his school device. Using his mom’s computer last year instead of his school device helped him work faster.

The senior is full of relief as he starts his last year of school in person.

“It’s a very big chapter that I’m about to close, and I don’t want to have any roadblocks in my way so I won’t have to be in credit trouble,” he said.

Rael, the district’s principal, has paid more for her home internet connection during the pandemic. While she typically pays at least $160 per month, some months she has spent $350 to boost her data allowance for tasks as simple as opening a Google document or email attachments — a costly option she knows not everyone in her community can afford.

During storms, her signal is temperamental. She bought a second router for her house because the one from her service provider only allows her to use the internet 10 feet away.

At times her family has not added more data to their monthly plan, Rael’s 16-year-old daughter, a junior at Centennial High School, has planted herself at a local church or the nearby cemetery, where she can use her cellular hot spot to submit assignments and also join classes through Zoom. For a long time, Rael’s cellphone plan wouldn’t grant her both unlimited data and the ability for her family to use their phones as hot spots — both of which they needed.

She’s learned how to better manage her family’s data and add more data each month, particularly after a wake-up call one night during the pandemic when she arrived home to find her daughter gone. 

Rael’s daughter is part of Upward Bound, which prepares high school students to transition to college, and she was at the cemetery trying to join her class virtually. 

It was 9:30 p.m. and at that hour, the only light in the cemetery was probably from her daughter’s phone.

Though her daughter was safe, Rael worries about her putting herself in a potentially unsafe situation “just so she could try to connect.”

Moving through mountains and valleys

Melster originally set out to complete part of his district’s internet connectivity project by the start of the school year, but there are still a lot of logistics to sort out and questions to answer.

At the root of those questions: How can the district transmit its signal to the highest number of students possible for the least amount of money while also ensuring families can pick up a strong connection?

There’s no one clear-cut way to solve that problem, particularly for a district that takes in remote areas.

Centennial School District R-1 has mapped out 125 student homes, some with multiple kids from the 191-student district. The district is working with its internet provider, Alamosa-based Jade Communications, and engineering consultants to determine the best method of transmitting the district’s signal to them.

That could mean investing in more fiber to add to lines that are already in the ground. Or the district could erect towers and poles that can carry the signal out to homes from two already existing towers owned by Jade Communications. One is located on a nearby mesa overlooking the town and the other is situated up on a hill off of Colorado 159 southeast of the district’s campus.

Alan Wehe, general manager of Jade Communications (right), explains the broadband capabilities of communications towers to Toby Melster (left), superintendent of Centennial School District R-1, on Friday, July 16, 2021. Broadband is transmitted point to point through line of sight from tower to tower, thus the need for multiple towers over varying terrain and distances. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Students could access the district’s signal at home using only their device from school. Outside computers and laptops would not be able to connect to the district’s internet because he can’t open up Jade Communications’ signal to the entire public.

Melster said it’s hard to know whether the state grant funding will be enough to develop the community’s infrastructure until the district knows whether it will pursue more fiber or towers and poles.

He also understands that the district’s signal won’t be strong enough to reach every student’s home, and so he’s considering creating new learning centers where students can travel nearby to get a connection.

Jade Communications, which has invested in San Luis for close to a decade, is working with the district to figure out the most cost effective way to connect students’ homes with the district’s internet signal. But it’s likely to be an expensive process riddled with challenges.

Adding phone and internet lines to hard-to-reach homes in the mountains is costly for internet providers, Jade Communications director of marketing Jordan Wehe said.

Some of those homes still don’t show up on Google Maps, adding another complication, Wehe said. He estimates that Jade Communications’ broadband internet is available to 90% of students in the district. Regardless of how remote a family’s house is, the internet provider charges them the same prices as other users.

Another challenge: San Luis is such an old town that some homes may not have power, Wehe said.

Homes high up in the mountains or low in the valley may also not have a line of sight to one of Jade Communications’ towers, requiring the provider to find an alternative solution to secure them a connection.

Wehe can’t cite an exact cost to build the infrastructure necessary so that remote families can access the internet, with complex variables like the terrain and mileage to consider. But he said the district’s project aligns with the company’s mission “to solve the digital divide in southern Colorado.”

Melster hopes that as many students as possible can jump online at home with the district’s signal by the start of the next school year.

A map of Centennial School District R-1, pictured on Friday, July 16, 2021, shows four different quadrants and the number of students who live in each area. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

He doesn’t think that the task of ensuring students have a home internet connection should fall to a district, but he also can’t sit by and wait while many of his students struggle without one.

“I don’t think it should be (a district’s) responsibility,” he said. “I think it should be a possibility.”

The possibility that he’s seizing in his district will set future classrooms up for new ways of learning. Melster imagines “opening up an outdoor classroom” in which students could go to the site of a historical event and pull up related class materials online with school laptops. It will bring lessons alive for students, he said, particularly in a place like San Luis — the oldest town in the state.

And it will improve the district’s remote learning program, making it easier to use should the pandemic flare or even if students are stuck at home after a surgery. He added that the option of remote learning likely won’t dissolve after the pandemic.

Neither will students’ reliance on technology. The district leader sees how much kids have grown to depend on devices, pointing out that even elementary schoolers carry around cell phones.

“So why sit here,” he said, “and fight it?” 

Erica Breunlin

Email: Twitter: @EricaBreunlin