Systems administrator works to get homeless students MiFi devices


Cassandra Anderson, systems administrator at Janesville School District in Wisconsin, faces a unique set of challenges when it comes to providing students with all the latest cutting-edge technology.

More than half of the 10,350 students in the district fall below the poverty line, and many have limited or no access to the internet at home.

So Anderson has taken on the task of working with U.S. Cellular to provide MiFi, a wireless router that acts as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, to every student who is homeless or does not have access to internet. She works with a team of about 15 IT staff.

“It’s been a real challenge,” Anderson said in an interview with EdScoop. “It’s something new for U.S. Cellular and something new for us, so we’ve been working together to complete this project. At this point, it’s very close.”

Anderson’s work and dedication led her to be named a NextGen Leader by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and EdScoop in a national program to recognize rising leaders in K-12 education technology. She will be recognized along with her fellow finalists at the annual CoSN conference this month in Chicago.

U.S. Cellular landed the contract with the school district before Anderson arrived just over a year ago, and the company was chosen because it is known as a leader in cellular reception in that area of Wisconsin. The district has worked with the company for about six months on the project.

“Especially with homeless children, they’re not always in the same place, so providing internet to a specific home wouldn’t necessarily benefit them,” Anderson said. The MiFi is a “small device, smaller than a cellphone, that they would be able to take — and anywhere there is cellular reception they would be able to connect and get internet access.”

The project is especially important as district leaders attempt to roll out a one-to-one device program across all schools, which include 12 elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools and four charter schools. So far grades K-2 have iPads, and other grades have Chromebooks. But Anderson acknowledged that some schools just aren’t ready yet to sustain a one-to-one launch.

“We aren’t really to the point of sending them home with a device, but we will be,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re filtering that device.”

Anderson said the specific, pressing needs of the district – and the homelessness rate is increasing – has made her think more deeply about digital equity despite the difficult circumstances students may face.

“It definitely has made me think more about how we can create access for all students and the challenges that come along with homeless children not being in the same place.”

She said she expects the MiFi project to launch at the end of the school year once all the kinks are worked out.

“The next question is how many of these are we going to look at buying, and how are we going to run this?” she said.

She expects that the MiFis will be housed in the library, and students can check them out or another alternative is providing the devices to each student that needs one. “Obviously, that comes at a very large cost,” she added. “We still have questions that are unanswered.”

The program will likely start small, and high school students will likely need them more for their homework and research.

Anderson, who was promoted to her current title from systems administrator, wears many other hats as well. The district was awarded a grant from the White House for its National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace initiative to explore two-factor authentication.

The district is working with a security company called Yubico so that students and staff are able to access online services with a single device called a YubiKey.

“With this grant we’re piloting with both staff and students to see how this works in K-12,” Anderson said. “Companies like Facebook and Google are using this already, but the White House wants to see if this works in K-12.”

Anderson said her job is to make the day-to-day experience of being at school a smooth one for administrators, teachers and students.

“I have touched on a lot of different things in almost every aspect of the IT department since I’ve started here,” she said. “I’m constantly just trying to help anywhere that I can to make processes run smoother and better.”

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