Reina Preciado / KJZZ
“Welcome to Maryville” sign near 35th Street and McDowell Street.
For students during the pandemic, internet access hasn’t always been guaranteed. This issue was highlighted in the West Phoenix community in Maryvale.
Maryvale is a diverse, predominantly Hispanic community that began as the first major planned community in Arizona over 60 years ago. It has grown into a region that is home to many cultures and ethnicities.
But it is also a society that lacks access to the Internet. Resident Dora Mejia explains what students have been doing in Maryville during the pandemic.
“I saw many mothers with their children sitting outside a local restaurant,” Mejia said. How sad it is that kids have to be outside an institution to get online, and that they didn’t tell them, “Hey kids, come inside even if you can’t buy anything to get online.”
This lack of access is what the One Square Mile Initiative of Arizona State University focused on last year. The team has gone door to door and joined in community events in hopes of establishing connections with community residents.
One of their contacts was through the Isaac School District. The team received a call from the supervisor asking if Arizona State University could use its resources to research and address why students are not attending class during the pandemic.
Window decoration at Maryvale Community Center.
“What happened over the course of six months was very extraordinary,” Eric Cole said.
Cole is the director of Design Studio for Community Solutions at ASU College Watts, where the One Square Mile initiative is located. He says that research from Arizona State University found that Maryville areas have an average of 41% of homes with no Internet access.
Contact the university’s technology office. The team there had access to technology that could provide Internet access that reached the community surrounding a particular area.
From there, the One Square Mile Initiative worked toward its current project, which allows it to provide free Internet access to families around Isaac Middle School.
“Not only were we able to do the research and understand why people have a problem with connectivity, the digital divide, but we were also able to actually try delivering high-speed internet to people in the same community,” Cole said. .
This was in high demand for students, according to Berto Perez, director of technology at the Isaac School.
“Not all of them had a connection, or they were trying to use their parents’ cell phones, and it’s not enough to have access to the internet to do that,” Perez said. “And we first tried our streaming Wi-Fi and later got some LTE hotspots. But these have data limits and will run out.”
Despite the need, getting school residents to get free internet turned out to be more difficult than the team expected.
“We definitely had a hard time getting people to trust us. They thought it was too cool to believe,” said Kimberly Medina Rios, an Arizona State University student working with the initiative.
“We definitely had a hard time getting people to trust us. They thought it was too good to be true.”
Kimberly Medina Rios, One Square Mile Initiative
She says residents are starting to open up to the idea as their number increases. Her team member Wendy Ruiz describes what it took to get there.
“I think it’s very important that you tell them that you’re related to them, you’ve lived in the same neighborhood, you’ve had the same experiences, and we know what’s going on,” Ruiz said. “And once you kind of tell them that you also have these same experiences, they get more comfortable.”
The team also set up booths at community events in the area, where they announced the Internet initiative. This was where the team met Mejia, who described to her what it meant to have free internet for her.
“Having free internet was huge because we’re looking at a pandemic, and our need to have our kids in school so their grades don’t go down was very important,” Mejia said.
Mejia looks after her grandchildren and says it has been difficult to get through the challenges of the pandemic.
Reina Preciado / KJZZ
Isaac Middle School in Maryville.
“I get sick and my kids can’t make progress in school and then you make a mess in your house because you can’t rise above this. The internet is so important in this day and age, unfortunately we don’t always have the money to pay for it,” Mejia said.
The One Square Mile initiative team is still trying to reach its initial goal of providing Internet access to 200 homes, but it hopes to expand its reach to 1,000 homes around Isaac Middle School.
The organizers hope their work will serve as a model for other regions struggling to get online.