Oct 12 2006

How Rural Schools Are Keeping Up With New Technologies

When it comes to education and technology, can small rural schools compete with their large urban counterparts? The answer might surprise you.

When it comes to education and technology, can small rural schools compete with their large urban counterparts? The answer might surprise you.

When it comes to education and technology, can small, rural schools compete with their large, urban counterparts?


In this technology-driven world, providing a model educational environment requires the effective and seamless integration of technology into curriculum. However, can rural school districts provide the same level of integration as metropolitan districts?

When it comes to technology, small schools have more obstacles to overcome than do metropolitan districts with larger numbers of students and larger tax bases. The expenditure per student for education in 2000-2001 was $1,030 less in rural areas than in large cities. Funding formulas for public education are based on property taxes, which leave many schools in outlying areas out of luck.

Rural schools, particularly those in low-income or isolated areas, struggle to obtain qualified teachers. In addition, upper-division high school course offerings often are limited in rural schools because there are not enough students to justify the addition to a teacher’s course load. Also, small schools are faced with the seemingly impossible task of providing quality technology integration.

Considering these factors, it may appear that metropolitan areas provide more quality education than rural schools do. But research demonstrates that a small learning environment is the best hope for solving the problems educators face in large American high schools. Many experts believe that large schools often do not meet the needs of all students and do not prepare them for society.

In “The Condition of Education 2004” report, the U.S. Department of Education, shows that even though America is one of the world’s top spenders on elementary and secondary education, 41 percent of its high school graduates require remedial coursework during college.

In a scathing policy paper by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, numerous examples show where America is falling behind educationally. It states, “Today’s high schools are obsolete.”

Small Learning Communities

The Rural School and Community Trust, a nonprofit organization in Arlington, Va., helps rural schools and communities. Rachel Tompkins, the group’s president, says “Rural schools are better positioned to provide quality education than urban schools because they are more likely to have small learning communities.”

The Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Educational Statistics, part of the U.S Department of Education, reports that the average U.S. high school had 795 students in 2000-01. Only six states had an average number of students below 400, a number many researchers say is optimal to ensure quality education.

Tom Vander Ark, executive director for education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, agrees. The foundation invested more than $500 million in 2003 to improve education for U.S. children by creating small learning communities of around 400 students.

“We’ve concluded that good schools combine rigor, relevance and relationships,” Vander Ark explains. “Technology can help with all three—to create an engaging curriculum, to make real-world connections and to improve communications. But it’s not a silver bullet. It has to be deployed thoughtfully, by trained teachers as part of a schoolwide plan.”

Overcoming Barriers

The leading barriers for rural schools are isolation and limited budgets. Some schools overcome these barriers with distance-learning networks.

Vicki Hobbs, now a policy analyst for the Rural School and Community Trust, helped establish Missouri’s leading I-TV network, which provides classroom instruction via interactive television.

“In a consortium model, eight to 12 local schools collaborate and establish a common calendar and bell schedule,” Hobbs explains. “Each school identifies their master teachers and, through distance technology, each can offer courses to the collaborating sites that the schools could not otherwise justify due to the costs or expertise required.”

At the Chugach School District in Anchorage, Alaska, technology is used in a different way, but with outstanding success. Through a multiyear process, the isolated communities served by the school district evaluated and identified what their children need to know to be successful. Skills were placed in a sequenced goal plan that leads from kindergarten through high school.

Using a notebook computer and digital map, each student documents progress toward his or her goals for learning, which are outlined on every student’s individual educational plan (IEP). Each student knows what needs to be accomplished to reach the next level. Reaching the next grade is based not on age, but on accomplishing the goals described in the IEP and moving along the scope and sequence plan.

“Many people try to use technology as a solution for poor education,” notes Richard DeLorenzo, the superintendent of the Chugach School District. “We use it as an accelerator to a good vision.”

But even with a good vision, getting the financing to fund technology for every student is an obstacle that few schools have overcome. Take Arizona’s Snowflake Unified School District #5, for instance.

“We went from 700 machines to 1,500 for our 2,500 students across the district, while reducing our IT staff from 4.5 full-time equivalents to two because of the reduced management needed with thin clients,” says Gary Simms, Snowflake’s information technology and facilities director. Each classroom usually has 10 to 12 computers, allowing the teachers to use technology as a learning tool.

Schools in rural communities have opportunities to provide a world-class education, and technology plays an essential role in model programs across the nation. In each case, leaders established clear visions and desired outcomes. Technology must serve those visions and outcomes.

Douglas E. Evilsizor is the director of development at Rehoboth Christian School based in Rehoboth, N.M.

Creating a Community of Learning

As middle school teachers in rural Northern Lower Michigan, we’ve had quite an experience. Last year, through Michigan’s Freedom to Learn project, all our students received wireless notebook computers. The program has bridged the digital divide, expanded technology opportunities and connected every student in our rural schools.

With Freedom to Learn, the computer is not the focus; learning is. A typical assignment is to give students a broad, open-ended question or discovery situation that allows them to exceed expectations. Lessons are self-paced and allow for remediation or extension. Students are encouraged to pursue their interests at great depth.

The results? Student learning has improved, and student labels have disappeared. For example, Halle was labeled as “slow and absent-minded” by her peers. Since she got a notebook, her assignments have greatly improved, and her peers now value her input.

Freedom to Learn provides equitable access to resources, and has created a community in which instruction and learning are individualized, and opportunities are endless. We are preparing students not for our past, but for their future.

Sarah Harless and Amanda Harthun teach at Michigan’s Bear Lake Middle School. Jason Lundin is a teacher at the state’s Clare Public Middle School.