Those long bus rides for Dufur school students are a lot quieter these days, reports bus driver Josie Turner.
That’s thanks to a Google project which has installed wi-fi on three buses, given each student in the school a Chromebook, and even provided tutors for the bus rides to help with homework.
Google’s initiative is called Rolling Study Hall, and has been implemented at 16 rural schools across the country that qualify based on the long commutes of students and a lack of internet connectivity for homework.
“It’s amazing,” said Turner, who is also the transportation supervisor for Dufur School. “There are 60-plus kids on that bus some days, so it can get really loud and rowdy sometimes. With Rolling Study Hall it’s quiet.”
That’s because “they’re learning something,” she said.
The program started at the beginning of the school year and will run through the end of it. It was highlighted last week when U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden came to visit Dufur.
Wyden got to watch students do some coding with Google staff, and then took a quick spin on the wi-fi enabled bus with some students.
“I think Rolling Study Hall rocks,” Wyden said to students. “I don’t know any other way to sum it up.”
He asked the students to give a big Oregon shout-out to Google.
He said it helps address the “homework gap” faced by students who don’t have internet access to do homework.
He also gave a shout-out to a student who, upon seeing Wyden, said to a friend, “Guy seems cool. Maybe he’s the president of Oregon.”
Later Wyden posed with the student, sixth grader Foster Harvey, on the bus, and jokingly said, “I have named this young man my vice president.” He let Harvey pick his cabinet, and when he said he would name his friends, Wyden said, “That is exactly how it works in politics.”
After Wyden’s remarks, students heard about coding and got a pitch for computer science from Google spokespeople.
Carla Altaras of Google said, “coding isn’t something only certain people do. It’s something everyone can do.”
After posing some questions to the audience, Google spokesman Jacob Mader said, “Of all the schools I’ve been to, these are the most thorough answers I’ve been given.”
Coding gives computers a set of instructions to follow that become programs used for work, fun and to save time.
Alex Sanchez, Google’s program manager for the Rolling Study Hall project, said the wi-fi enabled buses only rarely lose connectivity.
The eligible bus routes are those of about an hour or more, and the tutor is available for both the morning and afternoon bus routes. “If you think about having a tutor for those two hours, isn’t that amazing?”
About 85 students are reached daily on the wi-fi enabled buses, he said.
To keep students on task, the Chromebooks are filtered to prevent access to YouTube, for example, and no streaming is allowed. “We try to keep it focused on academic stuff.”
The schools themselves can select what they want to filter out, Sanchez said.
There are also educational games on the Chromebooks for kids who don’t have homework.
The program has brought “really good feedback,” Sanchez said. Across the country, early results have shown students on Rolling Study Halls have “significantly” improved reading and math scores, as well as more confidence — and, in a perhaps surprising twist, school attendance has improved.
Emerson Traub, a sixth grader, said of the program, “on the bus we have this Google thing. We have these computers. We can play games on them. We can do our homework. It’s really smart.”
Isabelle Shaw, also a sixth grader, has used the bus ride to do every type of homework she has except math. “I write down my notes and stuff that I have to do for a story.”
She said, “I think it works really well, especially on sports bus rides. They can be really long ones…. It just helps get your stuff done because I have basketball practice and stuff, and I don’t have time to get anything done.”