Broadband: With Jessica Rosenworcel
32 minutes

Join Commissioner Rosenworcel for the second half of her conversation with five female Superintendents who are leading communities across the country through an unprecedented school year. Listeners will hear more from Dr. Kristi Wilson from Arizona, Dr. Ann Levett from Georgia, Krestin Bahr and Dr. Susan Enfield from Washington, and Heidi Sipe from Oregon about what school looks like right now for students who have been asked to learn remotely at home. You’ll hear how schools are communicating with their students and families about the technology challenges they face, solutions they see for solving the Homework Gap, and what these education leaders hope for the future of digital life and learning.


COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Hello, and welcome to Broadband Conversations. My name is Jessica Rosenworcel, and I'm a member of the Federal Communications Commission. This is the podcast where I get to talk to leading women from across the technology, innovation, and media industries. You get to hear what they're working on, what's on their minds, and what they think is the next big thing.

I'm really excited about this episode, because it is actually not a normal episode of Broadband conversations. This one is a continuation of our last discussion, because I got the chance to talk with five really remarkable women who are superintendents of school districts from across the country. Our dialogue was so fun and such a treat that we thought we would extend it and have this special second episode. They're going to talk about technology, and the virtual classroom, and continue some of the themes we discussed the last time we gathered, and I hope you enjoy it.

Over the course of this discussion, we heard some references to schools loaning out wireless hot spots, we've heard some discussions about wifi parking lots, and I know that we've also mentioned eRate, which is the nation's largest education technology program, and it helps fund connections to classrooms.

I think we should use it right now to meet this moment and help fund connections to kids, but I'm wondering if in any of your districts there's something that you're seeing, even just in the short term, that is working well, or there's something that you imagined for the long term, because I think it needs to be a national goal that we close this homework gap and make sure every child has the ability to go online. I'm curious what's working best in your districts, if anyone wants to go first.

MS. SIPE: We've been surprised, pleasantly surprised, by the effectiveness of the point to point access point that has been a real game changer.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Yes, tell us some more. Tell us some more about what you're doing with that. That's very interesting.

MS. SIPE: Essentially anywhere that's within line of sight from one of our schools which already have strong cyber connections. Anywhere that we can see point to point from there we can install, and keep in mind I am not the tech person in our district, so I'm going to oversimplify this. We can install a point to point access router to that home or business, and then that allows them to create a neighborhood network.

It's been really exciting for us, especially the way that our community is designed. We have three very distinct neighborhoods, and one of them is on a hill that had very little Internet access, but it was easy to see our high school from that hill. We reached out to a number of households in key neighborhoods that through our surveying we knew were Internet deserts, and we said can we install this in your home, or on the side of your home. It's been amazing to see how supportive people have been to that idea.

Then because it's coming from the school it's automatically filtered, it automatically only works with our district devices, so it's protecting the access for our students. It's really been one of our most positive methods of getting Internet to a variety of neighborhoods.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: I imagine you're using unlicensed spectrum or wifi to do that. I'm wondering where that idea came from. Are you sharing that kind of idea with other districts, and talking to others about how successful that's been?

MS. SIPE: Yes, it's become pretty common in our region now, and the credit goes to a gentleman in our district named Pat Carrigan (phonetic). He is our tech guy in our district, and has just done a phenomenal job. He grew up in our community, he's committed to our community, and he understands the needs of our families.

When Susan said that she was ashamed of not recognizing the need so strongly, those are the exact words I've been saying time and time again. I should have known, and I did not know, and that's embarrassing. When we did our first Internet surveys, and then when we did our phone surveys we really started looking at by neighborhood. That's when Pat really stepped up. He gets the credit for that idea, but it's just been so incredibly effective.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: That's neat, so what else is working in other parts of the country?

DR. WILSON: I'll go. I think that the device distribution process that we went through was incredibly successful. I think, you know, number one, having to do it quickly and efficiently just, you know, we had a few little hiccups here and there, like getting them out to as many families as you possibly could safely. It just went really, really well. Our tech team, like the person just before me spoke to, I mean, I'm not really involved in all of that, I just know it went off really well. Then we went through summer break, and there was all kinds of things on the back end with security, and just all kinds of things that just went really, really well.

The second thing I would say is the resiliency of the staff to take it upon themselves with all the professional developments that's involved, with all the learning that goes on when you're just learning how to stand this whole thing up. They're so resilient. I mean, we have 5 year olds now who -- I get stories every single day that phone in, you know, remote in, and they're supposed to wait for the teacher to help them sign on, or push a button, or what have you.

I just love to hear the stories of the 5 year old who says, oh, I can do it myself, I can log on, I can do it. Before, a year or two ago, I can remember the big buzz was, oh, 5 year olds cannot be on technology. They can't use the technology for testing, you know, that was the -- and so, you know, just fast forwarding thinking through the use of technology to help students learn in a different way -- I talked about this in my opening statement about the fact that there's certain things that I think we were forced to do quickly, and that the silver lining for us is that, you know, just four months to do that I think we in our district were trying to get folks to do. You were shoved into it. They're doing it, they're doing it well.

I think given the choice they probably wouldn't have done it, but it's going well and learning is happening. It is happening. I'd like it to happen a little less disruptive in terms of the wifi and the device capabilities, like Susan and others talked about, but there is some fantastic innovation going on in our classrooms, and it's because of the resilience of staff and students, so --

DR. ENFIELD: Kristi, I'll build on that, you know, never waste a good crisis, right? I think that our teams in public schools across the nation have shown we're not wasting this crisis. We are putting it to good use, and using it to advocate for things that we know our kids and families deserve, and I will agree wholeheartedly with what Kristi said around stepping up and, you know, rising to the moment.

We deployed 13,000 devices in March when schools were closed to make sure that every child had a device, and we're fairly confident that all of our children will have a device. We're still working on the broadband access, but this has also, I think, really raised this issue in the eyes of the community about the fact that, as Commissioner Rosenworcel said early in this conversation, it's not a nice to have anymore it's a have to have.

We are actually, even though this is a -- these are difficult economic times, we will be running a tech levy in November so that we can continue to make sure that our students have reliable devices and access to their learning during this time. Again, seizing the moment and making sure that we're making the most of it for our kids.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: All right. Let me ask Heidi another question, just because I want to build on what she said about developing her own network, which is really exciting, but also you're from a rural area, and I'm wondering if there are lessons about connectivity associated with that that you would want to export elsewhere what you're learning in this moment, and what it could mean to help more students in more places like where you're from get connected.

MS. SIPE: Well, it doesn't help areas like Kreston's, our district is such a unique location. We're roughly a mile wide, and three miles long, and so we're in this very condensed area, which is unique for a rural district. I think for our situation the thing that we're realizing is that when we enroll students now, and forever forward, we need to check them out a device, and we need to ask do you have Internet, and if not we either need to make sure that we have one of those point to point systems in their neighborhood, or that we have a mobile hotspot to check out to them.

I don't think that's optional anymore, and it is one of the things that I'm saddened that it falls on the shoulders of school districts, but so many things do, and we must rise. Until those resources are available we have to step up and continue to advocate for ever on universal broadband until it's everywhere. Until then I think it's okay to say when we enroll students this is what we do. This is our new normal.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Right, and it was Ann who used that phrase about new normal, so let's return to her and ask her a little bit about this too, because she's from the, I think, the largest school district in this conversation, so tell us a little bit about what's working where you are, and what do you think is coming next.

DR. LEVETT: Well, one of the things that I've really appreciated is the support of the community in terms of making sure that we did have devices for everyone. Like one of my other colleagues, we had our own techs for kids campaign, and to date we've raised $275,000.00 through community donations, both individual and organization. In fact, we're accepting a check this afternoon for $35,000.00 from a family of car dealerships, which is really awesome. Those dollars go for chrome books or hot spots. Our focus right now is on hot spots, so that we can provide those services for families.

We have also established wifi buses, and so they'll be going out to communities to provide Internet services in places for families to gather and kids to gather to do their work. I'm really excited about that. We have ten up and going. We'll have another 20 by mid-September, so like the old bookmobiles we'll be going through the community with them scheduled so students can access services.

Lots of our churches have also opened their congregations, their sanctuaries, for kids and families to access wifi, so we're really happy about that. For those who can't do it though one of the things that we've done is we've issued the devices, recognizing that they may not have Internet service, but we've established what we call refueling stations, which means that the kids come up with their devices and also with thumb drive. We load their lessons on the devices. They can complete them and then come back in, and we will send those lessons to their teachers, and their teachers will connect with them that way, so they still get the devices, they still get to use them. They may not have Internet service, so you may not have that immediate export to their teachers, but their teachers can get it, get the information, and they can go to any school site. We have techs available for them to help them with that work.

I'm just like my colleagues, very impressed with our organization skills as educators. We can organize anything, from a movie line, you know, to thousands of kids going out for field day, and we've done that with device distribution, device repair, device replacement. We've been able to put all of those in place for us for more than 30,000 kids, and I think that's remarkable.

I've not had to think hard about how to do it, we do it, we learn our lessons, we refine it, and make it all happen, so I'm really pleased that some of these things, the wifi buses, the expanded services, our connections with the public libraries. All of those will continue I think well beyond this period. I love the idea that we came up with on the refueling stations, because it doesn't take you out of the picture. You still get to use the devices, we just try to make it possible for you to do that and do it easily.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Oh, I love that you call it refueling stations too. You just make it easy for people to think that they're going and get in their necks like that.

Anyone else have something creative that's going on in your district you want to share?

MS. BAHR: Yes. I would like to add I love the name refueling station. We also do that. We just give them the stick, but one thing I'm really concerned about is that synchronous, you know, that connectivity with the teacher, and their classmates, because you can't really do -- sell social emotional learning if the kids don't feel connected to each other, and so I think navigating through how to do that well with the lack of connectivity. I just wanted to add, you know, we have looked at a variety of different options, because you were saying what are some key takeaways for the future. We looked at the CBRS, so we've --


MS. BAHR: Yes.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Time for some spectrum (unintelligible). I know, correct?

MS. BAHR: Yes, so had a long conversation with Utah, and came to the conclusion that the transmittal from 1 to 2 miles doesn't go through trees, right, and so that wasn't necessarily an option for us at this time unless we had more powerful radios. The receivers are around $200.00 each, so that would be problematic, but, you know, I'm curious about that. I have a son in the --

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Yes, I mean, I love that, you know, education is now thinking about connections all the time, --

MS. BAHR: Yes.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: -- and that you're looking at creative new ways to keep students connected. That's extremely cool. I hope, by the way, the propagation potential for that spectrum is a little bit greater than you describe. I also hope that the prices of those radios come down over time, because the more solutions we can get in the market place to connect more students the better off we'll be.

MS. BAHR: (Unintelligible.) I think that we could from the school perspective, but we can't navigate that through the trees, so maybe somebody could get something through the trees.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: All right, we're going to work on the laws of physics there, okay.

MS. BAHR: Yes. We have looked at increasing and getting more towers and cell towers, but I didn't realize it takes about 5 years for the permitting process, and so that's not going to be a short term solution for us. I don't know if that could be streamlined, or anything --

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: There's some work going on to streamline that, but it is especially challenging in an area like yours that have a lot of federal land, --

MS. BAHR: Right.


MS. BAHR: Yes.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Even as sometimes the municipalities will streamline those rules to accelerate connectivity we also have to make sure that those areas of land that are owned by the federal government move fast too, and I think that's actually a big issue in some rural communities like yours.

MS. BAHR: Yes, thank you.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: You're all dynamos, and I hope when we look back on this period we remember two things, first, what unbelievable heroes our nation's educators were. I don't think there is any sector in civic or commercial life that has moved so fast online and to digital realities. I just think that's extraordinary, and in our day-to-day managing this crisis we sometimes miss what teachers, and educators, and our students have done so rapidly, and that's amazing.

I also hope, like someone else said, we don't waste this crisis, that we figure out how to make it a national priority to get every child connected, that we solve the homework gap, and that we see it as fundamental to learning that that child is connected in school and at home. I just appreciate how you're all on the front lines doing that, and that you're coming up with creative solutions and figuring out how to serve your communities with a whole lot of heart, so thank you for that.

Now, at the end of our discussions I always ask a few questions. Now, we got five of us, so we're going to have to figure out how to do this fast. I will probably call you out in order, but I want to know to everyone here what was the very first thing you remember doing on the Internet or online. So we'll start with you Kristi.

DR. WILSON: The very first thing in terms of, like, way back when?

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Yes, way back, way back, way back. I'm just --

DR. WILSON: Oh, God.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: I just want to see if it's anything interesting, or anything we can recall.

DR. WILSON: Oh my gosh. Now you're really dating me. I don't remember. The very first thing. I probably, like, tried to search for something, like, --


DR. WILSON: -- you know, look up something, like, --


DR. WILSON: -- I think I was -- I'm not going to say how old I was.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Or what you were looking up, right?

DR. WILSON: Yes. I'm sure I was trying to look up, I think, the World Wide Web, or searching some sort of, you know, fashion plate, or, you know, some sort of --

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Totally fair. (Unintelligible.)

DR. WILSON: Nothing. I can't come up with anything cool.


DR. LEVETT: I think that the first thing I did was, like Kristi, search for something. I think it was a location. I thought about that when I got the question. I was searching for a location trying not to get lost.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Yes, right. Well, you're all teachers, so you're searching and looking for knowledge. It just all makes sense, right? Okay.

All right, Krestin, what about you?

MS. BAHR: Well, this is, you know, computers came -- the first computer was when was in college, so, like, I'm old. I think it was probably some, like, science thing, you know, that I was looking up when I was teaching, and I thought it was really cool that I didn't have to go to a book and open it up. It was astounding.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: I know, we have to explain that to young people today, you know.

All right, Susan, why don't you go next.

DR. ENFIELD: Well, I started my career in education as a high school English and journalism teacher, and I was the newspaper advisor at said high school in (unintelligible) Chino and Silicon Valley, and my kids were all over the Internet. This was back in 1996, and, you know, they were using it to do the work they needed to do to put that award winning paper out. My first memories are actually not of me using it, but of watching my students using it and going what the heck are they doing. What is that?

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Teachers learning from students, imagine that, right?

DR. ENFIELD: Will always be true, always.


Okay, Heidi, finish us out. What was the first thing you remember doing on the Internet or online?

MS. SIPE: I loved seeing this question, because it brought back such a fond memory. My mom went back to college when I was in high school, and we lived about an hour and a half away from the college. She was one of the first people in our town to get Internet. She did her class all via lower case letters in this, I don't know what it was, a certain room, where she would interact with her college peers for her class. I remember the beeping and the whistling noises, and I knew she was getting on the computer. I remember our phones being tied up for hours. It was just such an exciting time. I was so proud of my mom for being this rock star techy. I thought that was such a fun memory to have, so thanks for asking the question. I hadn't thought about that in decades.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Oh my God, that is fantastic. That is, like, the best answer ever, because it's inspirational too about where our world was going, and how your mom saw it first.

MS. SIPE: She's still techy too. She's pretty amazing.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: All right, next question, and I will call you out again. What was the very last thing you did on the Internet. We're being as current as possible. Kristi go ahead.

DR. WILSON: Well, as I was mentioning to everyone, I just got a puppy, so I was searching training tips.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: I have a new pandemic dog as well. I understand.

All right, Ann, what's your answer to the very last thing you just did?

DR. LEVETT: My very last thing I did was look at the DPH, the Department of Public Health statistics for today.


DR. LEVETT: How I start my morning is to look at those numbers so that I'm prepared for the day.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Okay, Krestin, what about you?

MS. BAHR: One great opportunity that this pandemic has had is that we have our school board meetings online, and so I am able to sit out on my porch and attend a board meeting last night until about 10:00. We had our local health department, Dr. Chan, come and answer questions, so it was really good. I don't think that that will continue, but I'm really going to relish every minute of that, being able to do that.


Susan, how about you? What was the last thing you did on the Internet or online?

DR. ENFIELD: It was actually to go find a press release from Congressman Adam Smith, who's a proud Highline alum, where he is advocating for the renewal of the waivers to feed kids, and so that was what I did this morning.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: That's fantastic, and stately too I'm going to add.

Okay, Heidi, tell us what was the last thing you did on the Internet or online?

MS. SIPE: Well, in this wild time I have been the person designing and launching our online learning portal, so I have been making the website, so that's what I've been working on pretty much non-stop lately, but I think the fun part of that is one of my fourth grade assistant superintendents did this how to video with me that we posted, and the robotics kids edited it for us, and so it's just been so fun to see everybody come together to make this happen.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Oh my God, that's very cool, and I bet you -- I'm going to add I bet your mom's proud.

Okay, so now we're just going to think a little bit bigger, because you're all on the front lines of really how technology is changing education, so I want you to tell me what do you think the future of digital life and the Internet should look like? What are your hopes and dreams for connectivity in the future, and I'll start with you, Kristi, again?

DR. WILSON: Well, I think because it's such an unknown future, I have aspirations of, and hope that sooner than later that digital divide in the homework gap is, you know, we certainly can shrink that, and everyone can have access to what the technology, certainly we have seen, can provide so that the future, the jobs, the instruction that we provide now, everyone has access first of all, and that we -- the equity that we spoke -- that we all speak for, and we all stand for, putting in excellence that technology certainly can serve in that tool.


Okay, Ann, what do you want the future of digital life and the Internet to look like?

DR. LEVETT: Much like Kristi described it. It should be like water. It should be something that is available universally, and certainly at no cost. I mean, I want to think that in any community I walk into that I can at least get a glass of water, and that that is available to me, and I'm not having to pay for it, because it is an expected right as a person who lives in one of the greatest countries in the world. I expect that it will be universally available, will invest in the infrastructure to make it available to all. If you touch our soil you should be able to have Internet access. That is my view of the future.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Okay, Krestin, what do you have to say to this question?

MS. BAHR: Well, I absolutely agree with my two colleagues. I think that fundamental shift of requiring wireless as a public utility encouraging the design, and encouraging access and really creating different eco systems of connectivity for different places, but access for all. So it might look a little bit different in the world, but it shouldn't be -- it shouldn't follow just the vast populous, there has to be access. So I love the idea of connectivity like electricity. We know as a nation we have done this before, right? We have had efforts to connect everyone. Electricity is the great equalizer, right?

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Of course, we had the World Electrification Act --

MS. BAHR: Absolutely.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: -- a hundred years ago. Now we need to be, like, world digital (unintelligible) act.

MS. BAHR: You know what, absolutely, that's exactly what we need, and I think as a nation I think that we will be intolerant of inequity from now on. We need to do everything that we can for the children of the future, and it really, you know, America really has to change. We have to change this. Then I think -- I'm so excited that the tool of connectivity and the digital divide, the tools and access to that, I believe that we will never go back. We will never go back to before we closed down, because we have gotten smart. Who knew that was going to even do those things, but, you know, out of a crisis we changed dramatically, so I am looking forward to that.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: All right, I like that optimism too.

All right, Susan, what do you want the future of digital life and the Internet to look like?

DR. ENFIELD: Like my friends and colleagues here I want it to be ubiquitous. I want this connection to be available to all and just to be the norm. It's just what we all expect, and what we have. I also though want it to prompt us, I hope, and here's the English journalism teacher in me coming out, to be critical consumers of information. I think more than ever before one of the things that we really want to do, and have to do frankly, is teach our children, our young people to be critical consumers. Just because you read it on the Internet does not make it so, so I hope it makes us smarter and more discerning of what we see and read, and, most importantly, I hope that it really emphasizes for all of us, and reminds us constantly of the power and the need of connection, and that above all relationships are what matter most. I think that that's one of the things that has come out of this moment is how much we need and rely on our relationships with one another, and connectivity helps us do that, remotely in these times, but it will never replace the face to face relationships that we all need now.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Oh, that's so beautifully put.

Okay, Heidi, you get the final and last word. What would you like the future of digital life and the Internet to look like?

MS. BAHR: Like my colleagues, I am hoping and very optimistic about the future of Internet access for all. I often say that rural students have all the talent and none of the access, and that's why I push for stem programs in our community, and robotics programs in our community, but I think this has really revealed that any child without Internet also has none of the access, and we really cannot accept, or tolerate that. With that said, when we get the future where we do have the unlimited broadband for every single student in America then I think about what wonderful things we'll be able to recreate. This has forced us to really rethink every element of education in new ways, and not all of it has been positive, but the parts that have been are going to give birth to great new ideas and new experiences for kids, and I can't wait to be a part of that. When this is behind us the future is bright. It's going to be wonderful.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Oh, you're all making me so excited in the middle of a crisis. This is very, very neat. So I want to make sure people can keep up to date with each of you on what you're doing, so if you have a place online or social media that you'd like to call out now I'm going to give you your opportunity.

So, Kristi, why don't you start.

DR. WILSON: You can follow me at is our website, and you can find me on -- it's all listed on our website.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Okay. Ann, who mentioned all that's she's doing on social media, so go right ahead.

DR. WILSON: Yes, wonderful to share our district website address, of course, is, but my social, and of course, we have our own social media accounts there, but Twitter is @annlpga and my facebook account is Superintendent Dr. Ann Levett, so that is my own account that I manage, but I just would invite people to connect to our website, district website, and then just do a search for me. My name is a little unusual, L-E-V-E-T-T, but most people can find me there.


MS. BAHR: Yes, I also had to look it up. My personal Twitter for superintendency is @Bahrkrestin and then @eatonvilleschooldistrict, or you --


MS. BAHR: -- you can just Google us.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Okay, Susan, who I know is active online. Go right ahead and tell us where to find you.

DR. ENFIELD: Sure,, and Highline has Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. My superintendent Twitter and Instagram is @enfieldsuptenfield.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: All right, so to our last superintendent. Heidi, tell us where folks can find you.

MS. SIPE: I am not a frequent tweeter, but I am at heidiwhitesipe on Twitter, and then our school district website is

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Well, thank you all. That wraps up another episode of Broadband Conversations. Thank you for all that you're doing for our students. Thank you so much for being here today. Take care.