Rural Schools | Feature

Off the Beaten Path

Making sure students in rural areas get the same quality of educational experience as their counterparts in urban and suburban neighborhoods can be enhanced by the right kind of technology implementation.

Alaska's Kodiak Island, a vast stretch of nearly 3,600 square miles of terrain in the middle of the North Pacific, sits roughly 300 miles southwest of Anchorage, separated from the Alaskan mainland by the Shelikof Strait. Offering breathtaking scenery, Kodiak is described on the island's official website as "…a place to slow down to the tempo and timbre of wilderness, to appreciate silence broken only by the eagle or loon."

But, like any of the countless rural areas across the United States, Kodiak Island is also a place inhabited by children who need quality instruction. And all too often, the same solitude and small-town feel that make rural communities so appealing to so many can also challenge school districts seeking to provide the best possible education for their students.

The emergence of technology as a critical component of that education has presented rural districts with an invaluable tool for overcoming the problems created by sparse and remote populations. But the same districts often face barriers to effective implementation of technology, from lack of infrastructure and funding to a shortage of tech-savvy teachers, staff, and potential community partners.

In the Kodiak Island Borough School District, the geographic isolation is particularly pronounced. Seven of the district's 15 schools are "off-road"--accessible only by air or boat. The largest of these schools has approximately 55 students; the smallest has 11. Each has two teachers.

"The problem we've faced over the years has to do with equity," says Norm Wooten, a longtime member of the Kodiak Island Borough District School Board. "How do you offer the same education to kids in these schools as the kids in the town are getting?"

For many rural areas, the problem begins with infrastructure--little to no access to broadband, or in some cases any internet connection. "The lack of reliable, robust, and affordable connectivity continues to be a daunting problem when you get into a remote rural area," says Ann Flynn, education technology director for the National School Boards Association. "There has not been an attractive business model for internet providers to go into these areas and make it affordable."

For rural districts that do have broadband access, there is still the problem of students not being connected at home. According to a recent Federal Communications Commission report, 19 million Americans in rural areas (about 28 percent of them) do not have access to broadband, whereas 7.2 million in nonrural areas (or about 3 percent) don't. In Eastern Lebanon County (PA) School District, which serves nearly 2,500 K-12 students in four towns and the surrounding farm area halfway between Hershey and Reading, connectivity "depends on where you live," says Dorothy Noll, a technology learning coordinator for the district.

"There are people in our district who have no internet connection at all because of where they are located," Noll says. "We have to make sure we have avenues in place for students from these families--whether it's community libraries or going to a friend's house and working on a project together--so that they're not left behind."

Leadership Lapses
Other challenges relate to the small populations in rural areas. A 2008 US Department of Education survey concluded that rural districts are dramatically less likely than their urban peers to have access to technology leadership. "Larger communities just have more people to draw from, so you're more likely to find the type of person with IT skills that you need to run a robust school-district network," says Flynn. "When you don't have those people in your community, you have to find ways to recruit them in an attractive relocation move, and that can be difficult."

For districts able to overcome the challenges, technology can serve as a powerful solution. For example, having few teachers in a sparsely populated district makes it difficult, if not impossible, to adequately cover all subject areas, particularly as the content becomes more specialized. That challenge was particularly formidable on Kodiak Island, where math scores were declining at a steep rate in the rural schools. "We ask our rural schoolteachers to teach all subjects to all students, and most are not highly qualified in math," says Phil Johnson, principal of the district's Rural Schools Office.

In Kodiak, the use of distance-learning technology has turned around once-struggling schools by not only enabling students to learn from better-qualified instructors, but also by expanding the breadth of content that can be offered. Supported by a grant from the Alaska Native Education Program, since 2008 the district has delivered math instruction through a model that includes video teleconferencing, Elluminate, and Moodle, supported by Smart Board interactive whiteboards, desktop cameras, Bamboo pads, and projectors.

Highly qualified lead teachers--resident within the district but not necessarily the site--are assisted by co-teachers, with one instructor on each side of the camera to make sure students always have in-person support. With the grant, the district was able to offer stipends to lead teachers and provide staff development in support of distance education.

In a first for many of the remote schools, students could take Algebra II. The program continued to expand, and soon students were being offered Pre-Calculus along with nonmath courses: Anatomy and Physiology, Advanced Composition and Literature, and Music.

"I have a math teacher teaching Pre-algebra and Algebra I from Ouzinkie to seven other schools," Johnson says. "Then I have a science teacher at Kodiak High School teaching Natural Resources to seven schools, and Music is taught from an elementary school located on our Coast Guard base here."

Advanced-placement courses became available, and college-readiness scores increased significantly. Beyond the core courses, the technology has enabled the district to offer rural students specialized instruction. Last year, several students from the off-road schools expressed an interest in learning how to weld. The students were connected remotely to welding instruction at Kodiak High School, and several were able to earn certifications to work professionally as welders, including one student from a school of 12 who passed four welding certification tests in a single day after completing the distance-learning course.

Thinking Globally Even When Your Community Doesn't
If rural students grasp the importance of technology and many of their teachers understand its power--even if they sometimes need guidance in integrating it into classroom lessons--convincing community members of the need to support educational technology initiatives can be a greater challenge.

"In a small community like this, we have an aging population and a lot of the senior members don't use the technology in their homes," says Keith Charpentier, administrative principal for Wentworth School District, a single K-8 school of 60 students located 18 miles west of Plymouth, NH. "When you try to talk about the technology you need, it's foreign to them, and it's a tougher sell."

Charpentier hasn't been alone in his struggles to convince community members of the importance of investing in classroom technology. "A lot of people in rural communities need to be educated about how important this is," says Danville Public Schools (VA) Superintendent Sue Davis. "What they need to understand is that in today's schools it's hard to teach globally prepared students when they're not connected to the world in any way."

Consequently, Charpentier has looked elsewhere to solve his dilemma. When his budget requests were denied, he turned to writing grant applications for emerging technologies. "Every year I talk to the people at the high school, look at where 21st-century learning is going, and see where we might be able to get grant funding," Charpentier says.

Mining resources in both government and the nonprofit sector, one grant has led to another…and another…and so on. "You get turned down a lot," he adds, "but you keep plugging away and, when a grant comes in, what might seem like a small amount for a big school makes a huge difference here."

In five years under Charpentier's leadership, Wentworth has replaced its barely used hand-me-down computers and installed a seamless IP-based infrastructure. Every classroom has direct connectivity to the internet, along with Epson LCD projectors and PolyVision Eno interactive whiteboards. Teachers are using multimedia production technology, web publishing software, iPads, and student response systems.

In a district in which nearly half of the students come from economically disadvantaged homes and one-fifth have an educational disability, state test scores soared from 2006 to 2010: English language arts proficiency rose from 51 percent in 2006 to 78 percent this year, proficiency in mathematics from 39 percent to 70 percent.

"The community has little in terms of knowledge when it comes to technology," Charpentier says. "That said, I have had a very supportive board. I also have a very skilled set of teachers who understand technology and are able to utilize it very well."

Shrinking Districts
Many rural districts are shrinking and, as a result, undergoing consolidation. Fewer schools in sparsely populated areas means longer commutes for students. The problem struck a chord with a couple of Vanderbilt University faculty members, leading them to start a university-based program that addresses concerns about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) readiness in rural areas while simultaneously transforming the problem of lengthy bus rides to and from school into an opportunity to augment classroom learning.

In October 2005, Billy Hudson decided to ride the school-bus route he had ridden as a child growing up in rural Grapevine, AR. In doing so, he learned that with consolidation the length of the commute had doubled, to 90 minutes each way.

Hudson and his wife Julie saw an opportunity to take advantage of that time by creating a "one-room school on wheels," with students working on STEM content using laptop computers on buses fitted with internet access through a mobile technology developed for recreational vehicles. The Aspirnaut program, launched at Vanderbilt, has blossomed into a K-20 STEM pipeline program connecting a research university with schoolchildren of all ages in 10 rural districts in Arkansas and Maine, with the goal of increasing the number and diversity of students entering the STEM workforce.

Along the way, the program introduced a WiFi bus with media screens to facilitate the viewing of STEM content by K-12 students, differentiated by age group, on 19-inch LCD/PC monitors. Eventually, the program moved beyond the school bus. Online courses began to be offered and an after-school classroom was established where, two days a week, participating students could go for help or to carve out a curriculum tailored to their needs and progress. Science labs for grades 3 to 8 were added through videoconferencing.

"Hands-on, inquiry-based science was just not happening in these schools, so we began beaming it in," says Julie Hudson, assistant vice chancellor for health affairs at Vanderbilt and the program's director. "This is providing that resource conveniently and at a relatively low cost. It's up-to-date and cutting-edge, covering subjects like physics and chemistry that are not easily covered in elementary school."

Hudson believes Aspirnaut speaks to the power of a partnership between a major research university and rural K-12 districts for implementing technology-based STEM instruction. "We can provide in-depth, high-quality content on almost any subject, and the schools have the expertise at how best to reach their students," she says. "We see this program as a template that can be replicated in many places." Through the partnership, students and teachers from the Aspirnaut districts visit Vanderbilt; for many, it's their first visit to a college campus.

University-Rural School Partnerships
When seeking to implement major technology initiatives, an enduring challenge for districts in remote rural areas is the dearth of local examples to emulate. "We are social creatures--we look at what is around us and see who is doing what," says Anne Moore, associate vice president for learning technologies and director of information technology initiatives at Virginia Tech University, like Vanderbilt a higher education institution whose mission includes assisting underserved rural and urban communities in integrating technology in teaching and learning activities. "The more you have going on around you, the more chances there are to pique your imagination and interest and see how your needs can be fulfilled. You don't get that so much in a sparsely populated rural community."

That's where a partnership with a major university can make all the difference. It did for Danville Public Schools, a rural district in southern Virginia, just north of the North Carolina border, which forged a partnership with Virginia Tech to install, through a local utility, a gigabit fiber with an access portal at one of its schools as a first step toward a more comprehensive infrastructure. In doing so, Danville Public Schools was the first entity in the small city of Danville to gain connectivity.

A decade later, the service has expanded throughout the area. "Our partnership with Virginia Tech was the nexus of everything we did," says Sue Davis, the district's superintendent. "It gave us a leg up on our technology offerings."

Beyond working with the district to install the fiber, the Virginia Tech group guided the Danville leadership in developing a long-term technology plan, and launched a three-year faculty-development program to bring teachers up to speed on the use of the new tools to enhance education. "If people don't know how to do something meaningful with the technology, it does no good to have the fiber in the ground," says Virginia Tech's Moore.

Today, Danville schools are equipped with Promethean interactive whiteboards and Elmo projection systems; a robust wireless network supports mobile laptop carts and computer labs with instructional software. The district has begun to experiment with iPads and Nooks.

"Now that kids are gaining access to smartphones, they're not as interested in marching into a lab to use a computer. They want to be interactive in the classroom," Davis notes. "If we're teaching through worksheets instead of interactively, there is a gap between the way they are learning and what they know is possible."

While tech-savvy students may expect to enjoy the same interactivity in the classroom as they have outside it, for many rural teachers, providing such instruction doesn't come easily. "In rural districts, the teachers tend to stay in their jobs for a long time," says Eastern Lebanon County's Noll. "Because of that, districts such as ours have an older faculty, most of whom are not digital natives. That's why professional development and mentoring are so essential."

Eastern Lebanon County has long made both a priority. Noll is one of two full-time technology learning coordinators (TLCs), providing professional development opportunities for staff and serving as a conduit for teachers looking to offer technology-enriched lessons. The TLCs use cellphones and iChat to stay in communication with the classrooms, and are available at all hours for teacher support.

On "Techie Tuesdays," TLCs provide in-house training to small groups of interested teachers during their planning periods. At each session, Noll shows them something new, and the teachers can use the opportunity to share experiences and exchange ideas with colleagues. Noll also has the sessions recorded and the videos archived online.

Since 1999, the district has also run an Instructional Technology Academy as a way to provide more in-depth technology integration to at least a dozen participants each year. Teachers who attend the three workshops leave with new ideas to implement, along with several new lesson plans. They also receive release time throughout the school year to collaborate with colleagues on technology-enriched lessons. TLCs follow up by visiting classrooms, continuing curriculum discussions, and holding additional training sessions.

Back to the Farm
The small size of rural communities does not necessarily limit districts' ability to enlist their local business communities in efforts to implement technology initiatives. "We always advise people to embrace local partners, but in these remote areas, chances are that it's not going to be someone who brings a lot of technical expertise to the table," says Flynn.

But a K-5 school in Walton, KS, found a creative way to partner with local businesses--in this case, family farms--to build a project-based, technology-driven agricultural curriculum. In the process, the school went from being threatened with closure to experiencing enrollment beyond capacity.

Because of dwindling enrollment numbers, officials contemplated sending students at the Walton Rural Life Center to the next town in a cost-saving consolidation move. Instead, Walton overhauled its curriculum and became the first public elementary school in the nation to completely incorporate agriculture into its curriculum.

With funding from the US ED's Charter Schools Program, the school has implemented a program that uses technology to support hands-on learning, from time-lapse photography equipment to the digital incubator used by the kindergarten class. Students blog about their experiences planting vegetables and tending to chickens, and use the internet to conduct research.

The experience is enriched by the connection each class has to its own local farm families for field trips and classroom visits. "The families get so excited when they see the way their kids learn," says Natise Vogt, the school's principal. Events such as the birth of farm animals are recorded and put on the school's server, reinforcing the connection between the students and real-world experience.

The jury is still out on whether the program will interest young people enough to stay with their family farms. Vogt said this is only the fifth year for the program, "but we are attempting to collect data to track kids in the future."

However, it apparently has improved academic performance. In the 2010-11 school year, every single Walton student tested at or above grade level in math, compared with 94 percent three years earlier. Last year, 95.5 percent were at or above grade level in reading; in the 2007-08 school year, it was 86 percent. The school has nearly doubled its enrollment since 2007, drawing students from other nearby communities.

"We're giving students 21st-century skills," says Vogt. "They're working together, learning about technology, and doing their own research, so that whatever career they go into, they have the foundation and excitement about learning."