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School Hands Out 20,000 iPads to Students, and Connection Chaos Ensues

Image: Students using iPads distributed by Coachella Valley Unified School District

Coachella Valley Unified School District handed out 20,000 iPads to students. Now it’s looking to become an Internet service provider. Courtesy Coachella Valley Unified School District

A poor California school district became the unlikely first region in the nation to give iPads to every one of its 20,000 students. But the program's success had a serious unintended consequence: It knocked nearby school districts completely offline.

Now Dr. Darryl Adams, Coachella Valley Unified School District's superintendent who spearheaded the program, is exploring a unique solution to the Internet setup his students accidentally overloaded — he wants the school to become its own Internet service provider.

"This program represents a shift in the education paradigm," Adams said. "And I won't let something like connectivity stand in the way of that."

That tenacity helped Coachella Valley hit the lofty goal of doling out 20,000 iPads to students from preschool through adult education. But it also caused the problems that came next.

For Adams, who has both an easy laugh and an effusive manner, connecting Coachella Valley was about "leveling the haves and have nots." His district is squarely in the latter category.

Coachella Valley is a rural desert area where most residents — 98.9 percent of whom are Hispanic, Adams said — work low-paying agricultural jobs. About 80 percent of Adams' students live in poverty, and many of them lack Internet connectivity. Many reside in trailer home parks, desert areas or on reservations without a connection.

"The expectations were kind of, 'OK, you got a high school diploma, great,'" Adams said. "But only 16 percent were graduating from college. You can't say that's OK just because of the district's socioeconomic background."

Adams' own background as an '80s rocker influenced his approach to trying to solve the district's seemingly intractable problem.

Adams' own unique background influenced his approach to trying to solve the district's seemingly intractable problem. He served as keyboardist in Xavion, a 1980s band that he says was the first all-black rock group to appear on MTV and opened for Hall & Oates.

"Being a musician, a creative kind of guy, I'm going to think outside of those traditional ways of doing things — not subscribing to the current education paradigm as the be-all end-all," Adams said.

Adams and his team developed their iPad-per-student goal and worked quickly to make it happen: They launched a pilot program in the 2011-2012 school year, following up with a campaign to persuade taxpayers to back funding for a full rollout.

In November 2012, two-thirds of voters approved a $42 million tax plan to support the program: Half to be spent on the program rollout in the 2013-2014 school year, and half for 2015-2016. The district leased iPads from Apple, insured the devices, installed Wi-Fi hot spots on school property and trained teachers.

But the campaign and rollout turned out to be the easy part. Coachella students were using their iPads so much that they took up all of the available Internet bandwidth.

Desert Sands and Palm Springs — the two nearby school districts that share a county-supplied connection with Coachella — suffered slow Internet connections or found themselves completely unable to connect.

"We were blindsided," Adams said. "The county knew what we were doing every step of the way. So it was surprising that they didn't do anything, in terms of connectivity."

Desert Sands and Palm Springs formally complained to Riverside County, which promptly capped Coachella Valley's usage. The situation became somewhat heated, with a county official telling the local newspaper The Desert Sun: "They did not act like a good neighbor. I don't know how else to explain it."

"They did not act like a good neighbor. I don't know how else to explain it."

Coachella Valley "rolled with it," Adams said, but he thinks it wasn't simply a connectivity issue: "I wouldn't say it’s jealousy, exactly, but I do feel there was this sense of, 'Here's this poor district doing all this stuff, and we’re more elite, but they got a jump on us!'"

Real or perceived socioeconomic tensions aside, Riverside County — which serves as the primary Internet service provider for most of its districts — said it would address the problem by increasing total bandwidth from 1 gigabits per second to 10 gigabits.

Adams, however, doesn't want to rely on the county's connection. He and his team are in the early stages of exploring how the school may become its own Internet service provider.

"I want to be able to provide the backbone to 21st-century education, and to do that, I don't want to rely on anyone but us," Adams said. "If a county can be an ISP, why not a school?"

The county wouldn't comment on those plans to NBC News, instead saying in an emailed statement that "districts will need to assess their needs and the capacity of the systems that are available."

Coachella Valley's team is speaking with "representatives in D.C., the FCC, education experts, anyone who can help," Adams said. "If we need funding we'll go to Warren Buffett, the Gates Foundation, anyone."

Beyond the possibility of becoming an ISP, Coachella Valley is also considering a partnership with organizations that can "at least" provide Wi-Fi hot spots in the district's rural areas, Adams said.

"I am a believer that you fashion your own future," Adams said. "If you believe in what you're doing, you're two or three steps ahead. You go above or around roadblocks."

"The technological divide between the rich and the poor is the civil rights issue of the 21st century."

In the meantime, Adams said, a Coachella Valley high school class used iPads to take photos of the school library and design a new setup for the area. Arts students are learning to use Apple's iMovie editor. Students cluster around the iPads at lunch to view each others' work, he said.

Adams himself will teach a recording-arts class using Garage Band. He dreams of classes in computer programming, building drones and "really anything that will unleash them from the shackles of the desk."

Whether or not that method of teaching boosts the district's test scores or other figures isn't the point, Adams said. Coachella Valley "has a mini set of data" that show "continual improvement in learning and in test scores," he said, but "we pretty much rely on qualitative assessment of learning rather than quantitative."

Adams himself has learned that bringing technology to a school isn't as simple as it seems, even after the devices are in students' hands. He wants to see more schools roll out connectivity programs, so he's writing a 10-chapter book about what's involved — from handing out the devices to navigating bandwidth issues to training teachers.

"The technological divide between the rich and the poor is the civil rights issue of the 21st century, and the divide is getting bigger," Adams said. "Education can be the equalizer. And I won't let anything stand in the way of that."