In a poor South Texas town ranked the lowest in the nation for internet access, a teacher worked for four years on a mobile app that would improve communication among parents, teachers and students.
McAllen is ranked as the American metro area with the lowest percentage of broadband subscribers, according to statistics from The Center for Public Integrity. Only 37 percent of McAllen residents have access to the internet.
Dalinda Alcantar, a McAllen resident and director of the AVID college program in Edinburg, saw this reality in her own classroom – only a small percentage of her students had internet access at home. But Alcantar also saw something else. Although few students had computers at home, nearly all of them had smart phones. She surveyed her students and their parents, and found that they overwhelmingly preferred using a mobile device to access the internet.
Alcantar’s students and families aren’t the only ones “going mobile.” A 2013 Pew Research Center report found that smart phone ownership was on the rise. In the United States, over half (56%) of the population had one. Owning a smart phone was especially prevalent in the younger crowd, despite their lower annual income: 77 percent of 18-29 year olds owned a smart phone while earning less than $30,000 a year.
Alcantar saw an opportunity. Previously, the lack of Internet access at home made it difficult to connect teachers, parents, and students with school matters. But, Alcantar thought, what about a smart phone app? Her students were on their phones all the time – why not leverage that behavior to reduce communication barriers? Driven by the vision of a connected school community, Alcantar worked for four years to develop the app now known as eJucomm.
The eJucomm app gives a comprehensive picture of students’ records, including grades, schedules, teacher contact information, and class assignments. Parents can send emails to teachers and counselors via the app with only a few clicks. eJucomm can be customized to every school and is also available in Spanish.
From the start, Alcantar was convinced that her app was the solution she’d been looking for. “We needed this app,” she says. “The communication system we were using required computer and internet access at home, which less than half of our students have. Everyone else had no easy way to check their assignments or email their teachers.”
There was one problem though – Alcantar had no background in technology, much less in creating an application. She was intimidated at first, but decided to give it a try. “I was willing to weather a challenge if it connected my families to our school.”
In the end, Alcantar was successful. She credits learning to code to a strong faith in God, the support of her husband and two children, and the hours upon hours she spent on YouTube and online coding communities. And, of course, to the endless cups of coffee provided by her local Moonbeans.
“I wanted to beat the computer,” Alcantar says. “I wanted it to stop giving me an error and just run. I would search how to fix my errors and not give up until I did, even if it took 100 tries.”
Teaching herself to code showed Alcantar that the internet is an incredibly powerful tool for self-improvement. This, in turn, convinced her that too many Valley citizens were being robbed of a chance at prosperity.
“The reality is that the majority of the Valley can’t even connect to the internet because there are no access points,” Alcantar said. “I think it is the community leaders’ responsibility to create that utility. Without internet access, we’re denying people the ability to educate themselves and seize opportunities like the one I did.”
Alcantar hopes that her app will close the gap between wealthier families with internet access and families from low-income backgrounds, at least in the school setting. “Many of our students’ parents are labor workers. They don’t work in an office setting with wi-fi access,” Alcantar explains. “But with a 30 dollar device and Ejucomm, they can be connected to our school. Smart phones are an incredible piece of technology.”
These days, Ejucomm is in the process of being acquired. Alcantar believes one reason for the app’s success is its custom features. “We create buttons and features based on what we’re asked for,” Alcantar said. “That’s what makes us different. Every school is unique, so we fit the app for every campus individually.”
California-based Campusorb creates university apps and has discussed buying eJucomm and hiring Alcantar as the on staff K-12 expert.
“They wanted a K-12 division,” Alcantar said. “That’s why they wanted to buy us out. I get to blog about it and be the face of it. I’ll be establishing partnerships nationwide. It’s very exciting to bring this technology to more schools like mine.”
Giving back to her community has always been Alcantar’s life goal. She continues to serve her community by teaching coding and showing students the endless possibilities that internet access provides. Alcantar also helped establish Border Kids Code in partnership with the Mission Economic Development Corporation and Sylvan Learning Centers. Border Kids Code teaches students to code and increases their exposure to computer science, setting them up for success in that fast-growing field.
“Border Kids Code is an incredible movement here in the Valley. It exposes kids to the fundamentals of Computer Science,” Alcantar said. “The more I learn to code, the more I feel responsible for teaching others to do so. Plus, teaching the younger generation to code could bring incredible economic development in the Valley.”
Building Ejucomm has taught Alcantar many life lessons. There is one that she always keeps in mind: “It’s always going to be tough, but I really try to find any opportunity to say ‘God is amazing.’ It’s just the absolute most important thing to me.”