Rural schools face digital divide

YODER, Colo. — Surrounded by farmland and ranches, Colorado’s Edison School sits off an unpaved road, with tumbleweeds blowing across its dirt parking lot. As recently as a few years ago, many families relied on solar or wind power instead of electricity; today, many still haul home their water from wells. Principal Rachel Paul estimates that 25 to 30 percent of her students don’t have Internet access at home.

Rural Colorado’s Edison School has big technological ambitions, despite the fact that many of its students still lack internet access at home. Photo / Sarah Butrymowicz

Yet at Edison — where about three-quarters of the 120 K-12 students are eligible for free- or reduced-priced lunch — there are as many computers as there are students. On one recent day, Paul Frank’s fourth- and fifth-graders started off by learning about latitude and longitude on Google Maps and ended sprawled around the classroom on laptops, putting together presentations about the Midwest. While one student searched for photos of famous people born in Minnesota and Wisconsin, another used Google to find Nebraska’s annual rainfall.

Frank and administrators in the two-school district, located an hour east of Colorado Springs in Yoder, have big technological ambitions. They want to infuse technology into every inch of the curriculum, from using iPods to help elementary students practice reading to mandating that high school seniors take a computer-science course to graduate.

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It’s not about improving test scores — last year, every single one of Edison’s elementary students was deemed proficient on the state’s math exam. Instead, the goal is to expand the students’ horizons and prepare them for college and the workplace, where technological literacy will no doubt be assumed.

“Kids don’t have access to that kind of stuff at home,” Frank said. “It’s the future. They need to know how to do this.”

Rural schools have long been leaders in distance-learning and online education — to offer a full slate of courses to their students, they’ve had to be. In fact, Edison has a fully online school that enrolls about 100 other students in the district. But when it comes to technology inside traditional classrooms, the small sizes — and budgets — of rural schools present unique hurdles.

Some states, fearing a divide between rural and urban communities, have developed statewide initiatives to provide technology to rural schools. Maine, for instance, gives every student a laptop, and Alabama requires all school districts to offer Advanced Placement courses through distance-learning technology, where students video-conference with teachers.

It’s not about improving test scores — last year, every single one of Edison’s elementary students was deemed proficient on the state’s math exam. Instead, the goal is to expand the students’ horizons and prepare them for college and the workplace.

But in many places, the onus is on the already-strained staff of the schools to acquire and then use things like computers and iPads, leading to pockets of innovation, like that in Edison. Although it leaves a line in its budget for technology upkeep, Edison has supplemented its tech experimentation with a $10,000 grant from the Denver-based Morgridge Family Foundation.

For schools facing shrinking budgets and consolidation, technology could be rural schools’ saving grace, said Bob Wise, a former governor of West Virginia who now serves as president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., that has studied the challenges facing rural schools.

“We’re encouraging every district to develop a systematic strategy for employing technology,” he said. “My guess is you will see a number of rural schools actually saved and renewed as learning centers.”

Rural America lags in Internet usage

Rural America lags behind the rest of the country in Internet usage, making rural schools an important center of connectivity in the communities. In 2010, for instance, 57 percent of rural households had broadband Internet access, compared to 72 percent in urban areas, according to a November 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

By the numbers
  • In 2010, 57 percent of rural households had broadband Internet access, compared to 72 percent in urban areas, according to a November 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

In Yoder, Frank tries an experiment with his students every few months. He gives them a homework assignment that must be submitted by email. When he started doing this a few years ago, he’d be lucky to get five responses. Most recently, all but three of his 21 students emailed him something. In part, he said, the improvement is a result of work the phone company has done in the area, making it easier for homes to get broadband Internet access.

Still, teachers can’t count on students being able to go online to complete assignments and have to be flexible about staying after school so students can work on the computers.

“Getting the Internet into the homes is going to become our number one issue,” said Deirdre Binkley-Jones, Edison’s high school math and computer-science teacher. “We’re still dependent on traditional methods.”

While technology doesn’t necessarily lead to better student performance, it can expand students’ horizons beyond just preparing them for college or the workforce.

“The Internet can give them library resources that they might otherwise not have,” said Aimee Howley, senior associate dean in the College of Education at Ohio University, who studies technology integration in rural schools. Technology can also be used for simulations of things “you just can’t do on site. You can’t create a chemistry lab, dissect a whole bunch of animals.”

“Kids don’t have access to that kind of stuff at home. It’s the future. They need to know how to do this.”
–Edison teacher Paul Frank

Edison has used distance-learning equipment to take elementary students on a field trip to NASA and to teach them about the Civil War. Frank’s classroom frequently practices writing and communication skills by “blogging” on class discussion boards about stories they’ve read. High-school students might use Rosetta Stone to learn Spanish or watch free videos from the Khan Academy to master math concepts. Before receiving their diplomas, all students learn the basic coding behind computer games.

Howley has found that rural teachers are open to using technology in their classrooms, but she cautioned that doing so in rural schools typically requires innovative faculty to take on extra responsibilities. Even then, schools often don’t have the money to buy computers or tablets and offer teachers corresponding training.

Teachers not only need to know how to use new gadgets, but also must be prepared use the tools in ways that improve student learning, Howley said. Although Edison’s grant money has paid for some teacher training, it’s not enough to cover everything.

Rural teachers learn by doing, with little IT help

Frank, the self-proclaimed technology “guinea pig,” has learned by doing. When he first got an interactive Smartboard, for instance, he and his students learned together how do to things like upload textbooks and record attendance. Now, he’s got the other elementary teachers using Smartboards and even iPod touches to monitor reading fluency, but the laptops rarely leave his classroom.

“I use [the Smartboard] for a year and figure out all the bugs,” Frank said. “It’s been really exciting to see the other elementary teachers buying in to using the technology.”

“You get this much technology and you need a lot of tech support, and we don’t have it. Then we’re just frustrated.”
–Edison Principal Rachel Paul

But enthusiastic as he is about the potential of digital learning, Frank isn’t an IT expert — and it’s rare for rural schools to have one.

“You get this much technology and you need a lot of tech support, and we don’t have it,” said Paul, the principal. “Then we’re just frustrated.”

Edison shares with other schools in the area an IT person, who comes once a week and mainly tends to the school’s servers. Without extra help, though, Edison may have reached its limits.

“At this point, getting more technology would be a disaster,” Binkley-Jones said.

Although many staff members say students are enthusiastic and take to technology easily, Binkley-Jones finds herself teaching basic computer skills — how to open or save Word documents, for example — to high-school students.

As the school moves forward with its five-year technology plan, which will include expanding distance-learning and more training for teachers, the elementary staff will need to address that.

“Even five years ago, we would have been happy with kids graduating knowing how to write a Word doc,” she said. “The focus in technology is moving away from [just] being able to use a computer.”

This story also appeared on on June 20, 2012.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.