MARSHALL - Many Madison residents will have increased access to internet after Madison County Schools and four county community centers received Wi-Fi upgrades after the state granted money to Land of Sky Regional Council for facilitation of the project.
Land of Sky Regional Council is a local multigovernmental organization with a mission to provide creative regional solutions to relevant and emerging issues in Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties while providing a standard of excellence in the delivery of federal, state and regional services for its member communities, according to its website.
The program was born from the work conducted in Land of Sky's WestNGN Broadband initiative's survey, which was concluded in spring 2019 and received more than 8,500 responses.
Sara Nichols, a Madison resident and regional planner with Land of Sky, spearheaded the WestNGN Broadband initiative.
Nichols said the program resulted in increased access throughout the western region, which comprised all the Western North Carolina counties from Buncombe to Clay.
"We did several downtown Wi-Fis, a lot of community centers, and then bought a lot of devices or other equipment for different groups," she said.
According to Nichols, Land of Sky worked in Madison County with four community centers to "light up" public Wi-Fi in four local community centers - Beech Glen, Laurel, Spring Creek and Rice Cove.
"For most this was boosting Wi-Fi from previous projects," Nichols said. "For one it meant getting new service to that location. We also got tech devices for those community centers plus the (Madison County Center North Carolina Cooperative) Extension.
"The point of the program was about making (these community centers and schools) a public place to connect now," Nichols said. "So, you could go to the parking lot and sit along the river and do your schoolwork. So, hypothetically, if schools were to shut down again, that would be the place where students could go and do their work. The premise of the whole program was to be about K-12 students, but I had the flexibility in this program to look at this creatively. The school system wanted the smartboards, and we made that happen."
The state initiative NC Student Connect is a partnership across state government providing resources and technology for educators and students in all 100 counties. According to its website, the program works to alleviate connectivity barriers and support educator professional development.
According to Nichols, Student Connect failed to push those projects through in the western region, choosing instead to grant money to Land of Sky for the organization to lead its own initiative.
"Student Connect is a program with the (North Carolina Department of) Natural Cultural Resources where they tried to increase public Wi-Fi offerings significantly in a short amount of time," Nichols said. "They had reached out to me, and I put together a list of spots across the West. ND DNCR worked really hard to light up a lot of fire departments, community centers and spaces like that."
Land of Sky also provided 11 smartboards to the school system as part of the program.
Superintendent Will Hoffman said the smartboards have been useful for local teachers.
""We are grateful for the collaboration with Sara Nichols and Land of Sky for their support with the purchase of interactive projectors for our classrooms," Superintendent Will Hoffman said. "Our teachers are already trained in the use of this technology, so the investment has provided an immediate benefit for our students daily. The interactive touch screen projectors support active learning, collaboration and demonstration. When students show, explain and teach, their minds are actively engaged in the learning process. We have many older projectors that are nearing end of life in our classrooms, so this investment met a critical need within our school district at a critical time."
Nichols said residents are increasingly turning to community centers as community hubs, particularly in rural areas such as Madison County. She feels that in turn could potentially benefit students and other residents.
"Knowing that these community centers in rural areas are integral pieces - they're much closer in geographic locations than our schools are out here in most cases," Nichols said. "So, if I can make (community centers) a place to connect, that would benefit the students if they were needing access closer to their home. But it also is for anyone to come in and use."
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: State and Land of Sky expand WiFi in Madison community centers/schools