Rural communities are near and dear to my heart. I have lived in a rural community for more than 40 years in a Northern Wisconsin community bordering the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. If you live in a rural community or are familiar with such areas, you know how important the school is to the community. Starting in the 80’s and 90’s I witnessed our small rural district (K-12 population of 140) utilize an Interactive Video classroom through a distance education network to provide advanced courses, credit recovery, and world languages. In the early 2000’s the district transitioned to online courses to fill in gaps in curriculum. Despite the online options that exist for rural schools, however, there remain challenges to grasp a critical lifeline that can lead rural students to increased course access and post secondary paths.
The “High School Benchmarks 2014, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center” makes this point relative to the likelihood of rural students attending college compared to their urban peers: “In general, rural high school graduates are less likely than their urban peers to attend an institution of post-secondary education. According to research, rural students are less likely than their urban and suburban peers to attend college regardless of the demographics of their high school. The only exception is Low-Income/High-Minority schools where only about half of students, regardless of locale attend college in the fall after high school graduation.” Along similar lines, the Columbus Dispatch’s recent article, “Rural Kids Get Fewer AP Courses,” stated, “a first-of-its-kind analysis of high-school courses offered by Ohio districts finds that students living in poorer, more rural areas of the state have access to fewer overall classes, and far fewer high-level courses, than do students living in suburban and urban districts.” Wisconsin Public Television aired Support Systems for Increasing Rural College Access. This episode discussed the factors facing rural Wisconsin students on a path to educational opportunities after high school. Challenges, solutions, support systems at the local and national level were highlights.
Many factors are leading to rural school challenges: declining enrollments, high socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, high transportation costs, a lack of computer and Internet access in homes, low teacher pay and high turnover. All can lead to low student achievement, low achievement leading to a perception of poor quality, poor perceptions of quality leading to failed referendums (a mechanism in Wisconsin to request additional dollars for education from local taxpayers), shortages of highly qualified teachers, fewer electives…do I need to say more!
Online learning is one solution to breaking the cycle of rural educational challenges. We can improve access (broadband and infrastructure) that can lead to increase in equity of options which includes access to high quality teachers in areas of shortages, improved confidence in quality digital resources, and professional learning for effective use of digital learning. These not only provide a lifeline to rural schools, but also build more pathways for our rural students to participate in post secondary options.
How can we provide this lifeline? It takes commitment and collaboration. Legislators in Wisconsin are reviewing recommendations made by the Speaker’s Rural Task Force. A current program called TEACH (Technology for Educational Achievement), subsidizes much of the cost to provide telecommunication access to eligible schools, libraries, and educational institutions which has been and is a lifeline to rural schools. TEACH 2.0, a recommendation from the Task Force would expand TEACH. It would be built on four pillars: 1) Increase current TEACH Funding for Broadband Expansion for Schools and Public Libraries, 2) Re-Establish Technology Block Grants for Hardware and Infrastructure Needs, 3) Provide State Support to Enhance School District Access to Digital Learning Content, and 4) Provide Grant Support for Professional Learning on Effective Instruction Using Digital Tools.
TEACH 2.0 pillars three (digital content) and four (professional learning) are interdependent on the other two pillars, districts having adequate broadband access and updated infrastructures. Enhancing schools’ access to digital learning content and supporting professional learning for using digital tools for instruction can be achieved by utilizing a valuable asset that 26 states have….a state virtual school. State virtual schools have been providing supplemental online courses across their states for over a decade in many cases. Recently, they have expanded services to support districts with their blended learning options, and also offer support for college and career readiness. Efforts by Montana Digital Academy’s Ed Ready Montana program or Idaho Digital Learning’s iPath are excellent examples of college readiness initiatives led by state virtual schools. Montana’s EdReady program focuses on preparing students for college-level math and a desired career path by revisiting possible gaps in general math skills and providing skills development opportunities. This potentially saves students (and parents) tuition costs for remedial courses at colleges. Idaho’s Digital Learning Path is a statewide early college high school model that provides all the coursework required to earn college credit, industry certification, or even an associate’s degree WHILE in high school primarily thorough online coursework.
Here in Wisconsin we have the Wisconsin Digital Learning Collaborative (WDLC), a partnership between Wisconsin Virtual School (WVS), Wisconsin eSchool Network (WEN), and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI). WVS and WEN collaborate with DPI to provide a single point for schools to access quality online courses and services. Combined, these two programs support pathways for schools to provide a variety of online and blended learning opportunities. TEACH 2.0 would provide a modest commitment of investment to support further development and implementation of digital learning opportunities for all public, private, and charter schools. Rural schools would benefit from 1) equitable access to high quality instruction, and 2) lowered costs through economy of scale purchases, reducing per student cost of high-quality instruction and digital content choice. Statewide licensing of digital content and a learning software platform has a high potential for significant return on state taxpayer’s dollars.
The Wisconsin Digital Learning Collaborative has the ability to use its experience and expertise to navigate acquisition and development of digital content. The WDLC has provided many hours of high quality professional learning for online teachers. Commitment from state legislatures to support their state virtual school and the collaboration among organizations can provide a lifeline to rural districts to meet challenges such as course access and post secondary paths. Rural schools are near and dear to my heart and others, and critical to communities across the country.
Dawn Nordine, Executive Director, Wisconsin Virtual School