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07.21.2017

Connecting Arkansas Schools

This Thursday, a large crowd gathered in the Glen Rose High School cafeteria near Malvern to celebrate as Arkansas became the sixth state to connect its entire public school system to highly secure, all-fiber high-speed broadband internet. This was the high-tech equivalent of a ribbon cutting.

I had the privilege of plugging the fourth and last internet cable into a computer switch, which set off the flashing green lights to signify we had accomplished our mission.

As of late Wednesday, when the Spring Hill district near Hope went online, every single public school in Arkansas is connected to the internet.

Every single school includes rural districts like Hamburg and McGehee in the Delta, and Maynard and Marmaduke in northeast Arkansas. The smallest districts in our state have fewer than 500 students and administrators as users. The smallest is Strong-Huttig with 430 users. The number of users at Glen Rose is 1,078.

This accomplishment levels the playing field for rural- and small-town schools. Now students in places like Gravette, my hometown of 2,300, can get their hands on every bit of information that is available to students in Fayetteville and Little Rock. Geography no longer will dictate which Arkansans have access to learning and opens broad opportunities for many that previous generations haven’t enjoyed.

Arkansas is one of only six states to meet the federal target for every state to provide at least 100 kilobits per second per student in 100 percent of its school districts. But our leaders weren’t satisfied with just leading the way. With the state’s buying power, Arkansas was able to double the federal goal and provide 200 kilobits per second per user.

I initiated this in April 2015 with a directive to the Department of Information Systems and the Department of Education to meet the federal challenge and connect all our schools. At that time, only 58 percent of Arkansas districts met the federal target. Now 100 percent are connected.

Johnny Key, commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education, said that with this upgrade, “the learning opportunities for all students are endless.”

Yessica Jones, director of the Department of Information Systems, joined me on the stage and plugged in a cord on Thursday.

Director Jones said: “Arkansas is a rural state, and many of our school districts were falling into that digital divide cited in study after study of the national broadband environment.”

I didn’t know exactly how this one-hundred-percent connectivity project would look, but I knew for sure that the Department of Information Systems and the Department of Education would get the job done. They did, and the final product looks grand. Not only are we leading the way, we surpassed the federal goals and set a standard for the rest of the nation. And our students are the real winners.

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