Nichole Dobo writes for The Hechinger Report and covers education at The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware.
About 70 percent of America's elementary schools still rely on slow internet connections. But in rural areas, the challenges—and costs—make getting broadband particularly complicated.
The community built a new barn, right next to their elementary school. They hung a sign over its red doorway, naming it Sunshine Farms. Inside, the children began conducting science lessons by collecting data on animals. The barn contained 11 hens, two lambs, and one laptop—protected with plastic wrap.
Until last year, the school in Maryland’s western Allegheny Mountains had internet access through a molasses-slow dial-up connection; it crashed if too many students used it, and the slow speed made it frustrating for teachers. Now, for the first time, the school has reliable, high-speed internet service.
“It opens up the world. A lot of our kids haven’t really been outside of Garrett County, so you can let them know there are different things out there,” said Dana McCauley, the principal and a teacher at Crellin Elementary. “And the kids, they want to use this technology. They are used to it. We have to step up if we want to keep them interested in learning.”
The federal government estimates that fewer than 30 percent of K-12 schools nationwide have adequate broadband infrastructure, and has pledged financing to help improve the situation. In Maryland, about $115 million in federal money has gone to improve broadband access. Last year, President Obama added more spending through the Connect Ed program, promising that “virtually all” the nation’s schools will have high-speed connections, along with teacher training and digital tools, by 2017.
A little slice of that federal money brought broadband last year to almost all of the 3,800 public school children in Garrett County, Maryland’s most remote and least populous school district. Teachers are using the new service to develop high-tech lessons that retain familiar agricultural themes. Schools no longer need to limit students’ use of the internet for fear of overburdening the connection, but they still must make do with very old computers. Two of the 12 schools in the district are not linked to the new fiber broadband and probably won’t be any time soon. Plus, the must-have list includes teacher training, rewiring of old buildings, and new curricular resources—most of which must be paid for by state and local funds at a time when money for the county’s schools is already scarce.
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Until 2013, the Crellin Elementary School barn project’s use of high-tech online tools would never have existed. Over the course of the school year, 109 children gathered data on the animals and the environment near the school. They weighed and counted eggs. They selected new types of feed to test egg production. They experimented to see if hens would nest in shredded homework. They made egg salad in the cafeteria, and conducted a survey to see if it was popular enough to be a menu item.
On a June day before summer vacation, the students prepared to share what they’d learned with parents and visitors. A tour bus full of educators arrived from neighboring West Virginia. Students explained their research findings and answered questions. In the gym, they demonstrated how they had calculated the mass of eggs.
“Can you believe these are second graders?” said Joe Evans, a professor of physical science at Glenville State College in West Virginia.
Glenville State College is more than two hours away, but professors there used videoconferencing to work with teachers throughout the school year, creating innovative lessons and providing mutual feedback. Aspiring teachers studying at Glenville could peek inside classrooms remotely to assess how a student’s learning was going.
All of this would not have been impossible with the district’s old dial-up connection. “The bandwidth was really bad,” said Joseph Burdock, a 17-year-old recent graduate of Northern Garrett High School who plans to study engineering. “Kids would, like, connect to the internet with their phone or an iPad or something, and they would have to reset the entire network.”
Teachers are now experimenting with other ways to overcome barriers of distance. After reading the picture book Frog and Toad Together, for example, first-grade teacher Karen Gilpin arranged to Skype with a wildlife expert who held up squirming frogs and toads to the camera as she explained the difference between the species.
“She had real frogs and real toads, and it was up on my Smartboard, and the kids could see it, and the frog jumped out of her hand—it was just an amazing experience that we were able to make happen,” said Gilpin.
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One day in June, teacher Lisa Bender handed out iPads to a handful of the students in her financial literacy class at Southern Garrett High School.
Students played an educational game that led them through various financial scenarios, such as buying a car or paying for college. Another program helped students evaluate career options. Rachel Warnick, 17, enjoys fashion and shopping, but after using the program, she settled on physician’s assistant as her goal.
“You might think about, ‘I like to play sports’ or ‘I like to be outside,’ but when you are considering a career you don’t really consider the things you like to do as much as what you need to do,” Warnick said. “With this, it’s more of, ‘How smart do you need to be to be a doctor?’ or ‘How tech-savvy do you have to be to be an engineer?’”
Bender had tried to use technology in her classroom before, but she would sign up for a cart of computers and have to wait two weeks for her turn. Frustrated, she applied for and got a grant to buy 60 iPads—30 each for Southern Garrett High School and Northern Garrett High School—to support a new financial literacy program.
The district, which has a budget of about $51 million, has used private and government grants to pay for almost all the technology upgrades. Although a 2010 federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant to Maryland paid to bring the high-speed internet to the school building, it did not pay for the wireless technology installations or updated computers that Garrett County schools needs to make the most of it.
Additional federal and state grants totaling more than $1.2 million were used to update technology inside the buildings. More than $471,600 of that went to infrastructure upgrades, such as Wi-Fi. Technology needed to administer new academic achievement tests, such as computer labs, cost about $391,500. About $278,000 was budgeted to buy computers for teachers. The smallest amount, about $119,200, went to pay for computers dedicated to classroom instruction.
The district planned to spend more on computers and other devices, but recognized that the district did not have internal systems to support full use of new computers, so it prioritized infrastructure over buying more devices. The technology grant money runs out this fall, and district leaders say they don’t yet know how they pay for more classroom technology.
“There are so many competing priorities in places like that with limited funding,” said Lillian M. Lowery, the Maryland state superintendent of schools. “We need to make a case and find partnerships.”
Public school enrollment in Garrett County has been shrinking for years, causing a decline in state aid to the school district. County commissioners have not raised local taxes to fill the gap.
Of the two schools not connected to the new broadband internet service, Swan Meadow, near the West Virginia border, has only 31 students, and Route 140 Elementary already gets cable internet service, which district leaders say is speedy enough for its needs. It would cost about $700,000 per building to bring a fiber broadband connection to those two schools.
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Every morning, a student newscast lights up the Smartboards in every classroom at Grantsville Elementary School. On a day in June, just before summer vacation began, Joshua Thomas, 11, and April Miller, 11, served as newsdesk anchors. They read the lunch menu. They showed hats and shirts in a cardboard lost-and-found box, hoping to reunite them with owners. They presented a segment on upcoming student birthdays via PowerPoint slides. A third student stood at a chalkboard to give the weather report.
This live production was fed into classrooms using an old video camera and a cable. The school has the online bandwidth to support Skype or some other digital transmission method, but it doesn’t own a digital camera. An educator improvised a technology hack to span the digital divide: Recycled VCRs transform the analog feed from the old video camera into the digital format required by Smartboards. Special adapters can do this, but the VCRs were a better price: free.
“If we are one thing in Garrett County, we are resourceful,” said Chuck Trautwein, the district’s computer resource teacher and the leader of a championship-winning robotics team that bloomed into a district-wide enrichment program.
When Superintendent Janet Wilson was hired to lead Garrett County schools in the summer of 2012, she realized the schools lacked the infrastructure to make good use of the fiber internet line that was on the way. That had to be the first priority. Now, all the schools (apart from the two not on the fiber) are connected to each other and the main office. This speeds up routine tasks, giving staff more time to focus on education. For instance, something as simple as updating student data used to require several steps. A principal sent an email the information to the main office, where it was printed out and hand-typed back into a computer with access to the software used to maintain this information. Now the principal can enter the information directly into the database.
And the district has stopped obtaining classroom computers by collecting out-of-date machines discarded by other school districts.The schools currently have a six-to-one ratio of computers to students, but hundreds of those computers are so old that they serve only for basic functions such as web surfing and word processing. Eventually, Wilson would like the district to have one device per student, or a bring-your-own-device program.
This summer, the school board authorized a new position of IT director—a big commitment in a district that has been closing schools. That new hire will help map out a cohesive plan. It’s a sign the school board supports the long-term vision that includes classroom technology, Wilson said.
Crellin—which ranked as the state’s No. 1 elementary school on achievement tests in 2010, according to The Baltimore Sun—was nearly shut down last year because of the district’s budget crisis. It’s no longer in jeopardy.
This school year, 10-year-old Trinity Hechmer came home singing a song about history that her class had listened to at Crellin. With her mother’s help, she got on the computer at home and they listened to it again—and again and again.
“She is actually very upset that school is stops in the summer,” Trista Sisler said. “It seems like kids aren’t bored in school, like I remember."
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.