Some rural districts have found success in surprising places

rural-schoolsRural schools haven’t always had it easy. Lack of funding, geographical isolation, and technology challenges often prove nearly impossible to overcome. But because technology is absolutely essential in preparing today’s students for college and the workforce, many rural schools have found ways to leverage educational technologies to their advantage.

While many schools still face an uphill climb as they try to address economic challenges and technology struggles, best practices emerging from rural schools offer encouragement and hope that students in geographically isolated areas will be just as ready to compete in a global economy as their more urban peers.

“The primary ingredients for success are teacher initiative and leadership,” said Jon Kludt-Painter, director of instructional technology in Alaska’s Petersburg School District. “Without that, we don’t have a viable program.”

(Next page: How two rural districts are making it work)

But because the 450-student rural district does have motivated teachers and strong leadership—with 46 certified staff and 37 support staff–it also has a robust technology program.

The district is one-to-one, with kindergartners through eighth graders having access to Macbook Pros during the school day, and high school students taking their devices home with them.

“We’ve given them the full set of tools for movie-making, podcasting, creating documents, and other software. If we don’t have it, and if it supports their learning, then it gets installed,” Kludt-Painter said.

“That empowers the students—knowing we’re there to support them in their learning. It’s a partnership; it’s not us saying, ‘No, you can’t,'” he added.

The district also offers robust internet access, and the small community is geographically close to the school and therefore can take advantage of that internet access.

If students don’t have home internet access, they are welcome to use the school’s internet at almost any time before or after school hours. A parks and recreation center is open on weekends and offers high-speed internet access.

“There’s lots of flexibility for sharing the network with students during those times, because that’s a concern of ours,” Kludt-Painter said. “The whole goal of the laptop program is to level the playing field.

Students frequently travel on local ferries, and those ferries are equipped with Wi-Fi hotspots so that rural students can study and complete homework.

The district funds its programs through local funding and partnerships, with an added boost from the federal eRate program. Enlisting community and stakeholder buy-in before and during the one-to-one implementation helped as well, Kludt-Painter said, because community support is essential when it comes to sustaining and funding projects such as this one.

The district uses Moodle for distance learning, as well as digital textbooks, which Kludt-Painter said enables high school students to participate in online learning. Many high school students take online courses through the Virtual High School, expanding their opportunities to take advanced and varied classes.

The district recently launched a coding class, and students have started learning how to use a 3D printer that the district purchased several weeks ago.

All high school students and most middle school students submit language arts assignments online through Criterion, an online proofing tool, and teachers return those assignments digitally as well in order to maintain a virtual paperless environment.

“From the time of middle school, students are fluent in online environments,” Kludt-Painter said. “Their classroom really is a classroom without walls. What’s really fascinating is talking with graduated senior who leave, and pursue trade school or four-year programs, and hearing about how well they say they are prepared in the online environment.”

“With the consistency of having educators who are here for the length of their careers, and also the freedom from the administration to do what’s best for the kids, that really lends itself to us being successful,” he said.

Infrastructure challenges

“The challenge, of course, is the wireless,” said Mike Saenz, a language arts and music history teacher at Falls Career High School, a non-traditional alternative high school in the Marble Falls Independent School District in Texas. “Infrastructure can be a challenge for small schools.”

The 4,000-student Marble Falls ISD operates four elementary schools, one middle school, and one traditional high school in addition to Falls Career High School.

Falls Career High School students check out laptops for use during the school day, and some laptops are loaned out if students live in particularly outlying areas or have special circumstances.

“We have wireless capability, but when the wireless breaks down we have to have a network drop,” said Peggy Little, principal at Falls Career High School. “It’s certainly not idea. We have 50 kids on laptops, but those 50 kids also have 50 cell phones. While we have enough infrastructure to support the laptops, that doesn’t account for the Kindles, iPads, and smartphones.”

But though wireless is sometimes a challenge even in the school, teachers and students are determined to make it work. Some teachers come in early and other stay late with students who need to use their laptops or take advantage of the internet during non-school hours. High school libraries have extended hours and are open until 8 p.m. four days a week.

The rural district is currently in the middle of raising its community’s awareness about the need for technology funding, as a vote around that issue is scheduled for May 2014.

“We want to get the message out that this is vital, and it’s important that you support your kids in this rural community,” Little said. “These are your neighbors and this is your town. These are the future contributors to your community, and we need them to be contributors with 21st century knowledge.”

Some community members might hesitate to put money into technology programs due to technology’s fast-evolving nature, claiming devices will be obsolete in five years, but the bigger issue is being able to support rural technology.

“We have to continue to improve the technology program, but the infrastructure is the biggest issue,” said Susan Maughan, the district’s executive director of special services. “The smaller devices, we can manage. It’s having the power to keep it going and running that’s most important, and that is not going to obsolete in five years.”

Transportation is another challenge for rural Marble Falls, which encompasses 268 square miles. Due to the district’s vast size, some students take public transportation to their designated school bus pick-up area and are often out the door before 6 a.m. Those students often take advantage of extended school hours to complete their work before the lengthy trip home.

Using Odysseyware, the district’s online curriculum provider, some students with special scheduling circumstances—those with extended traveling times due to a rural location, parents without reliable childcare, or those who work 40 hours a week–are able to keep up with their courses online and stay on track to graduate.

“We look outside the box,” said Maughan. “We think about what’s best for the kids. If you have a staff working that way together, it’s a definite benefit for our students.”