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Kids needed access for online school, but free internet was a tough sell in Maryvale

For students during the pandemic, internet access was not always guaranteed. This problem was brought to light in the west Phoenix community of Maryvale. 

Maryvale is a diverse, majority Hispanic community that started off as Arizona’s first master-planned community more than 60 years ago. It has grown into an area home to a multitude of cultures and ethnicities. 

But it’s also a community lacking internet access. Resident Dora Mejia explains what students in Maryvale were doing during the pandemic. 

“I saw many moms with their kids sitting outside a local restaurant,” Mejia  said. How sad is it that kids have to be outside of an establishment to get internet, and that they didn’t tell them, ‘Hey, kids, come inside even if you can’t buy anything to get internet.’”

That lack of access is what Arizona State University's One Square Mile Initiative has been focused on for the past year. The team has gone door to door and joined community events in hopes of making connections with community residents.  

One of their connections was through the Isaac School District. The team received a call from the superintendent asking if ASU could use its resources to research and address the reason students were not attending class during the pandemic.

“What happened over the course of six months was pretty phenomenal,” said Erik Cole.

Cole is the director of the Design Studio for Community Solutions at ASU’s Watts College, where the One Square Mile Initiative is housed. He says ASU’s research found areas of Maryvale had an average 41% of homes without internet access. 

He connected with the University Technology Office. A team there had access to technology that could provide internet access that reached the community surrounding a certain 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. 

“We were not only able to do the research and kind of understand why people were having trouble with connectivity, the digital divide, but we were also able to pilot an actual delivery of high speed internet to people in the community itself," Cole said. 

This was much needed for the students, according to Berto Perez, director of technology at the Isaac School District. 

“They did not all have connectivity, or they were trying to use their parents' cellphones, and that’s not enough internet access to do this,” Perez said. “And we first tried our own beaming Wi-Fi, we later got some LTE hotspots. But those have data caps and they would run out.”

Despite the need, getting residents around the school on board with getting free internet turned out to be harder than the team had expected. 

“We definitely had a hard time getting people to trust us. They did think it was too good to be true,” said Kimberly Medina Rios, an ASU student working with the initiative. 

“We definitely had a hard time getting people to trust us. They did think it was too good to be true.” — Kimberly Medina Rios, One Square Mile Initiative

She says residents started opening up to the idea the more they canvassed. Her team member Wendy Ruiz describes what it took to get there. 

“I think it’s just very important to tell them that you relate to them, you lived in the same neighborhood, you went through the same experiences, we know what’s going on,” said Ruiz. “And once you kind of let them know that you also had these same experiences, they get more comfortable.”

The team also set up booths at area community events, where it advertised the internet initiative. This was where the team met Mejia, who describes what having free internet would mean to her.

“Having free internet would have been phenomenal because look we are in a pandemic, our need for our kids to be in school so their grades wouldn’t have fallen was very important,” said Mejia.  

Mejia takes care of her grandchildren and says it was difficult to rise above the challenges of the pandemic. 

“I’m getting sick and my kids can’t make progress in school, and then you cause chaos in your house because you can’t rise above this. And the internet is so important in this day and age, and 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 to provide internet access for 200 homes, but hopes to extend its reach to 1,000 homes around Isaac Middle School.

The organizers hope their work serves as a model for other areas struggling with accessing the internet.

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Reyna Preciado started her internship with KJZZ in August 2021. She is a senior at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, focusing on community-related stories.She previously had been pursuing a major in biochemistry, but switched directions after becoming a server. During her time serving, she found that so many people had stories to share and so many voices deserved to be heard.She loved to write in her AP English classes in high school, so she made the decision to use her writing and communication skills to major in broadcast journalism. It was always a dream of hers to become a news anchor after being cast as an anchor in a fourth-grade newscast. It was silly, but it stuck with her, and she was eager to follow her dream when she was finally inspired to change directions. Now, she continues being inspired by the many voices within her community that have been waiting for an opportunity to be able to address what's important to them.When she is not working on a story, she likes to cook, sing and hang out with her crazy toddler.