Interview with Superintendent Keith C. Rittel, Provo City School District, Utah

In this next series of posts from my work study, I will describe communities where school systems are partnering with city governments, business communities, and nonprofit organizations to "go big" in addressing digital equity. As we previously noted, digital equity is a community challenge, not solely one that can be solved by a school district.

In 2013, Provo, Utah, became the third U.S. metropolitan area where Google Fiber offered gigabit-level broadband to households. Provo Superintendent Keith C. Rittel and Mayor John R. Curtis teamed up to leverage this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

This was a somewhat unique situation because Provo sold its iProvo municipal fiber network to Google to enable the effort. In exchange, Google agreed to complete citywide installation of fiber and to offer free internet service to all households or businesses for seven years after a $30 setup fee for basic broadband (or $70 for the highest level of broadband). This was an incredible, but limited time offer.

While Provo had unique circumstances, the way the community leadership promoted the benefits of gigabit connectivity to its citizens could be replicated in other communities, especially when citywide gigabit connectivity efforts are underway. This will be increasingly important as more and more cities are planning for gigabit broadband connectivity. Over 100 mayors and city leaders have already pledged to support the gigabit vision of the Next Century Cities initiative; but despite how encouraging the extensive Provo effort is, it also points to the difficulty of showing the value of broadband to families who are “off-grid.” 

“While the $30 sign-up fee in Provo seems like a bargain for seven years of broadband access, the city and our school district also knew there would be families that could not afford or see the value of the upfront cost. Therefore, our Provo School Foundation became a partner in the initial phase and contributed $10,000 to cover the signup fee to enable the estimated 300-350 high poverty families receive home broadband. The foundation provided gift cards, not cash, to cover the fees. All families had to do was apply to receive free home broadband access,” said Rittel.

Given the time-limited offer, Mayor Curtis and Superintendent Rittel launched a campaign for community awareness. They sent 12,000 letters to households (reaching 17,000 children), stating:

With access to a fast Internet connection (and the training needed for its use) student success and family success are enhanced. Connectivity is the way of the future, and will be critical for our students, families, and citizens of Provo. Whether through Google or through some other provider, we implore homeowners and landlords to move forward with internet connectivity as a priority in the near future.

There were also lawn signs, billboards, and media attention promoting the Google Fiber offer. “We tried to be considerate of other local telecommunications companies so as not to alienate them with our focus on Google,” stressed Rittel. It took political courage to proceed while juggling these relationships.

“Yet even with all these efforts, only about 100 of the invitations were accepted,” said Superintendent Rittel. “It was a modest success, but also showed us the challenges inherent in persuading low income, and in many cases, minority families and students.” 

There is no empirical research on why many didn’t take the offer, but it may have been related to not seeing the value of broadband. In addition, some landlords may not have seen benefit for rental properties and citizens may have been skeptical of the government advocating for broadband. 

Mr. Rittel also stresses there was a clear and distinct educational vision driving their promotion of broadband. Educational reform, not mere access, was the goal. In fact, they firmly believed that technology initiatives fail if they lead with the technology.

“In 2014 Provo was taking a digital leap and launched The Provo Way Innovative Learning Initiative (PWILI). The goal of the PWILI initiative is to produce students who can thrive in a technology-rich society with skills of being able to problem-solve with high quality solutions. The effort was inspired by the book The Toyota Way which stresses the inclusion of employees in setting the direction of the organization and continuous improvement. We used John Hattie’s work on Visible Learning as the foundation and focused initially on thirty-two teachers to lead this effort,” remarked Rittel.

The District is also working to change the learning culture over a multiyear period. In the first year, thirty-two teachers took part in the effort and identified 1-3 other teachers most likely to show success working in a blended learning environment. The district is now in year two and scaling to nearly over 70 teachers. The goal for year three is to add another 50 teachers. Funding for this technology initiative is doubling this year even though Provo is one of the lowest funded school districts in the U.S.

The District has developed these key tenets for the work of education transformation:

  1. Develop appropriate levels of district office support focused on helping teachers and students perform to their highest potential.
  2. Support teachers in meaningful ways to constantly improve their individual and collective craft.
  3. Continuously improve and collectively share all meaningful information.
  4. Support innovation and allow innovative approaches to grow and flourish.
  5. Improve quality of teaching to result in improved student learning and achievement.

While the District is now beyond the initial phase of promoting the Google fiber offer, they continue to scale the educational focus of PWILI. All teachers are now required to sign a commitment form. And although the district is one of the lowest funded school systems in the country, they have secured funding for the first two years of this transformation. Mr. Rittel candidly concedes that sustainable funding is the main remaining challenge of the effort. “The teachers who are part of this initiative are very excited and committed. We already have a waiting list of more than 100 teachers for year 3. My job is to ensure that we have a sustainability model for funding technology.”

Mr. Rittel concluded, “Ultimately, our classrooms must be transformed into settings where, in addition to learning the important foundational understandings of a given subject area, [students] are given relevant and applicable problems to research, study, and solve.” Learning doesn’t simply stop at the front door. 

Lessons Learned

  • Work with your local partners on Digital Equity; local partners include municipalities/mayors, the business community, and philanthropic partners. 
  • It is hard work to persuade unconnected, low-income families that they need gig-level connectivity.
  • Be creative when you launch an effort.
  • Start with developing a small critical mass of teachers, rather than just blitzing the entire system. Grow that critical mass over a number of years.