You’ve probably heard the old saying that it takes a village to raise a child, and it’s still very true today. However, the village of today looks quite different from the one of the past.

Like many states, South Dakota is struggling to meet the changing needs of raising an educated, technology-savvy, and productive generation of students who will be ready to lead as tomorrow’s adults. But South Dakota’s sparse population and vast space have added to the challenge. Many of our schools have had limited funding, limited leadership, and scarce resources to develop and train staff in new and innovative solutions–including the use of technology to reach educational goals.

The challenges recently faced by the Faith School District are but one example of the many challenges facing our schools in the race to provide a high-quality education that is relevant in today’s world. In 2004, the small school district of Faith, S.D., population 521, learned that its school building had been condemned, just as the district was considering going wireless and implementing a one-to-one laptop program at the high-school level. District leaders faced some tough decisions. Alone, they might not have been able to make the best decision,

owing to limited resources. However, the Faith School District was able to form a partnership with the state and with private industry to find a solution. Faith became one of the 20 school districts that were part of an initial pilot program by the state that aimed to use one-to-one computing in high schools to develop 21st-century skills.

As a state, South Dakota recognized long ago the need to form partnerships among the community, the corporate world, and local education systems as a viable method to solve many of our technology-related needs and challenges. We’ve tried to develop high-quality state-district-corporate partnerships to maximize our existing resources and bring about exciting and dramatic change for the benefit of our students.

One of the state’s largest partnerships involving technology began in 1996, when former Gov. William Janklow initiated a partnership among local school districts, various state government agencies (including the Department of Corrections), U.S. West Communications, and private-sector electricians. We formed this partnership to wire the state’s schools, taking a major step on the road to establishing a first-rate digital education system. The partnership continued and grew during our “Connecting the Schools” project. This brought both video and data connectivity to all major educational entities in our state.

The partnerships then took on a different form to include nonprofit organizations, higher-education institutions, and local educators in the creation of statewide technology training academies, called Technology for Teaching and Learning (TTL) Academies, which allowed approximately two-thirds of the teachers in the state to be trained in technology use and implementation. This proved to be quite successful.

The most recent phase of technology partnerships in our state has taken on a new look and involves some new participants. Our current governor, Mike Rounds, aims to help our schools achieve the next phase of a 21st-century education through his 2010 Education Initiative. Partnerships are being used to target 21st-century learning skills as outlined by the second goal of Gov. Rounds’ initiative: “By 2010, South Dakota will be first in the nation in the percentage of students going on to college, technical school, or advanced training.”

Classroom Connections, a project that leverages partnerships among K-12 and higher-education leaders, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and state government agencies, is bringing one-to-one computing to every high school student in South Dakota. The project began in 2005 and is focused on aiding South Dakota’s high school students in the development of essential 21st-century workplace skills–critical thinking, problem solving, communication, self-direction, and technology literacy–by implementing laptops in high schools across the state. It’s designed to help level the playing field for students, so those who don’t have access to computers at home will have the same opportunities as their peers to compete, succeed, and be connected.

The pilot program is about to begin its second year of implementation. Schools chosen for the pilot have ranged in enrollment size from 21 to 1,275 students. They represent both sparse and urban districts across the state and have included about 9,600 students in 41 districts so far. With the help of private industry leaders such as Citibank, the state provides matching incentive funds to pay for one-third of the cost of laptop computers for every student in grades 9-12, while local districts pick up the remaining cost of the machines.

The project included a lot of up-front planning, coordination, and teamwork. Before the project began, the state developed a leadership team of partners that included the Department of Education, Bureau of Information and Telecommunications, Dakota State University, SDN Communications, Mitchell Technical Institute, Gateway, Citibank, and the nonprofit organization Technology In Education. The following spring, districts were brought into the partnership and guided through the process.

A major advantage of forming partnerships and a state implementation team is that it provides for the funding, resources, and expertise necessary for local districts to make smart technology choices, harvest greater buying power, train local leadership, provide for staff training, and support network technicians. Because of the partnerships it formed, the state was able to negotiate optimal pricing for computers, warranties, software, and training–thus saving districts time and money. Professional development was designed to meet the individual needs of each district, while providing a general format for site leaders to follow. Two team leaders from each participating district were selected to be trained in a “train the trainer” model and to build a cadre of support among sites–all at no initial cost to the districts.

So, how are we doing in our deployment of 21st-century learning via one-to-one computing? For the tiny Faith School District, the decision to purchase laptops is starting to pay off. Staff members are receptive to the laptops and are in the process of redesigning the methods they use to deliver instruction. Students can even be seen during after-school hours, sitting outside the school building, working on their laptops and connected to the internet through their school’s wireless network.

“It would be nice to have a permanent structure, but we might be in mobile units for a while yet–and we can’t have a gap in these kids’ education. Students will need this [access to technology] for the future,” said Mel Dutton, CEO of the Faith School District.

Laptops in the classroom have the potential to transform the educational process–making it more relevant and engaging for students. Teachers can become facilitators, while students become more self-directed and responsible for their learning. However, it does take planning, implementation, evaluation, and resources.

We’re just starting to evaluate the results of the pilot project and expect to see good results. While visiting with local districts, one official from the Lemmon School District told us the laptops are “effective, because students are more productive–they have dependable access to search tools, online databases, et cetera. Students gather information, synthesize, draft, and revise assignments and then hand in professional-looking documents. Our teachers have embraced the project 100-percent. It is amazing how they have changed their teaching in just one semester.”

It is the formation of strong partnerships that is making the difference in South Dakota. Each partner brings a needed component to the table and is committed to bringing about high-quality results. A partnership of state officials and experts who are willing to work together for the good of our children is creating the village that will raise the next 21st-century citizens of tomorrow in our state.

Peg Henson is a curriculum technology specialist for South Dakota’s Department of Education.