Students riding the bus to their San Antonio Independent School District schools this year may be the first to experience a new pilot program created by the district and the online library BiblioTech. The Rolling Riders program aims to foster literacy by giving children access to digital books on Wi-Fi-equipped buses.

BiblioTech, Bexar County’s online library, is full of downloadable books, magazines, movies, and other media accessible through smartphones, tablets, and other digital devices. It is providing Wi-Fi hotspots on seven SAISD school buses, said Nathan Graf, SAISD’s senior executive director of transportation.

“The kids will have access to tons of books,” Graf told the Rivard Report Thursday.

Part of the district’s enthusiasm for the initiative stems from a reading program that ran during summer school.

“In June, Book Buddies had about 1,400 books that were available to distribute,” Graf said. “We sent some of our drivers over there to distribute these books to about 600 kids in summer school, and the kids loved the books. It was just incredible.”

Rolling Readers’ goal is to expand on that reading enthusiasm, but with digital media.

“We’re going to be paying for the routers on the buses with some grant funding,” BiblioTech administrator Laura Cole told the Rivard Report Thursday. “We are going to be supporting sort of an audio component for reading book trailers … and we are providing, obviously, the reading material that we’re going to be promoting for the students.”

Neither SAISD nor BiblioTech will be providing tablets or other Wi-Fi-capable devices for the program. However, BiblioTech allows readers the opportunity to borrow digital reading devices.

Riders will begin receiving letters about the initiative Monday, and students will be encouraged to share information on BiblioTech registration with their parents. Once students are registered, bus drivers will be given the job of leading readers through monthly themes that will encourage habitual reading.

“We’re going to enlist the support and participation of the bus drivers, who are going to act as reading captains,” Cole said. “We’re going to have monthly themes on the bus and sort of create and designate a shelf, a virtual shelf, in the BiblioTech library with reading material that supports each of those monthly themes.”

Theme topics include superheroes, pets, astronomy, and sports. Graf believes the program will offer bus drivers an opportunity to help contribute to students’ educations.

As of Thursday, none of the seven Wi-Fi-capable buses had been assigned routes.

“We’ll finalize that after the first week of school once we see all our ridership,” said Graf, adding that the Wi-Fi buses will be assigned to routes with the most ridership.

Cole acknowledges that there currently is no way to ensure that students using the internet connectivity aboard the buses are actually participating in the reading program.

“We won’t be able to restrict, in any way, the use of that Wi-Fi for purely educational purposes,” Cole said. “However, we can promote, and we can make sure that you’re not going anyplace that is unsafe for you.”

Sprint and Manage Mobility are installing the Wi-Fi hotspots in the buses, Cole said. Just as it is on the district’s campuses, users’ access to the internet will be limited through SAISD internet access, which blocks pornographic websites, sites associated with drugs and violence, and standard social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, according to SAISD Chief Technology Officer Patricia Holub.

The increase in connectivity offers more educational opportunities beyond cultivating a wider culture of online reading. Students will also be able to use the new Wi-Fi capabilities to work on school projects or homework assignments that may require internet connectivity.

An individual’s access to the internet is increasingly seen as an indicator of economic well-being, according to a 2016 publication released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas titled Closing the Digital Divide. In that publication, researchers point out that some students are unable to complete assignments due to limited internet access. Out of 72 U.S. cities ranked on a list of “Worst Connection,” San Antonio is 19th.

With its Wi-Fi buses, SAISD joins other school districts around the country seeking innovative ways to increase their students’ internet connectivity. PBS Newshour reported on an effort by California’s Coachella Valley Unified School District to retrofit some of their school buses with Wi-Fi capabilities and park them in neighborhoods that had little to no connectivity to serve as Wi-Fi hotspots. Students not only had internet access during their commutes but also in their neighborhoods.

The Rolling Readers initiative currently is focused on building a habit of online reading during students’ rides to and from school. However, Graf recognizes the possibilities of turning buses into Wi-Fi hotspots.

“Long term, we could take these out to the community and possibly park these buses in areas of the community where a large portion of our children live, and it would provide them Wi-Fi capabilities so they could possibly work on homework,” Graf said. “The short-term [objective] is [focused] solely on the reading.”

The program will face two evaluation periods during the fall and spring of the incoming school year. For now, it’s all about increasing children’s love of reading.

“I’ll consider this a success if we can spark our children’s interest in reading,” Graf said. “… Anything that we can do to put more reading opportunities in front of the children, and helping them take advantage of that, that’s my end goal.”

Jeffrey Sullivan is a Rivard Report reporter. He graduated from Trinity University with a degree in Political Science.