San Antonio Independent School District adult learners, middle and high school students may soon get paid to help fulfill the district’s tech support needs as part of a technology and digital literacy pilot program through Texas A&M-San Antonio.
The program is funded through a $750,000 grant from USAA and $150,000 from Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, and it aims to train students to staff help desks and provide additional technical support to their classmates, district parents and staff, while exposing students to IT careers.
“They’ll learn at their own pace,” said William Griffenber, TAMU-SA’s chief information pfficer. “Down the road we are going to allow them – at their own pace – to learn as much about IT as we can possibly train them on.”
The pilot also will help close the access gaps that became more apparent during the coronavirus pandemic. SAISD is the second district to pilot the program, after Edgewood jumped onboard last year to help fulfill the added demand through the pandemic.
Students hired though the district will receive training by TAMU-SA professionals this summer and move on to get paid $10 to $12 per hour to staff the help line.
SAISD officials are pairing the program with the Connected Beyond the Classroom initiative, which aims to provide better connectivity and support to some its communities with higher need.
With support from the city of San Antonio, the initiative is working to provide better internet connection through routers to Lanier High School families and its surrounding community, said Aaron Alonzo, SAISD director of information technology services delivery.
Officials also included the district’s adult education program, which offers paths to technology certificates. Five students who have already earned at least a basic tech certificate were selected to kick off the initiative in the next couple of weeks, then 8th-12th graders will be selected and vetted before the start of the school year.
“They are coming to them with some experience and background to hit the ground running with this initiative,” said Darlene Volz, SAISD director of adult and community education, adding the adult learners selected for the program are certified in IT and cyber fundamentals.
The university allows the district to select their participants before vetting them to get officially hired through the program, Griffenber said. The districts will also have a say-so and flexibility on how many hours to allocate to the students and their hours of operation.
The help desk will be staffed Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. and Saturdays 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., he said, with students working remotely and being supported by university staff. Once demand is assessed, the districts will be able to shift those hours to cover high-traffic times.
Last year, the number of calls to the SAISD help desk skyrocketed as the coronavirus pandemic kept everyone at home, Alonzo said. His staff of about 5 people went from answering about 120 calls on what used to be a busy day, to having close to 1,400 amid the pandemic, forcing them to look for help to grow the staff to about 15-20 people.
“Before COVID, parents and students weren’t calling the help desk. They would work with their teachers,” Alonzo said. “When they were working from home, they started calling our help desk.”
As students are expected to return to fully in-person learning this fall, the district is not expecting to field as many calls. But Alonzo said they are expecting to keep getting higher number of calls from the parents and students who became familiar with the service.
The program provides a cost-effective solution to support those that got used to using the service and the additional families who are expected to have better connectivity this fall thanks to the city’s efforts, he added.
Between SAISD, TAMU-SA and the city, the goal is to begin closing the connectivity gap in these areas and get families used to the technology resources that they may not have been able to take advantage of in the past.
“That’s three different organizations that recognize that there is a really big problem when it comes to digital connectivity for our students and the community of SAISD,” Alonzo said. “Being that our district serves 90-plus percent of economically-disadvantaged households.”
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