Education Leaders Tackle Connecting Rural Schools to High-Speed Networks

Education leaders share a passion for connecting every student to a rich learning experience despite geographical and financial barriers.

by Tanya Roscorla / June 10, 2015
St. Paul School in Arkansas has high-speed Internet access and high expectations to meet thanks to the vision of a rural education leader. Brandonrush CC by SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Armed with a passion for rural schools and high-quality education for all, education leaders are approaching high-speed connectivity problems head on. 

These rural schools often don't get the same attention that their big city counterparts do because of their more isolated geographic location and smaller populations. Internet providers would see less of a return on their investment if they laid down expensive high-speed fiber connections in a small town of 500 people. And town residents don't always have the money to pay the monthly charges -- just 10 percent of students' families at St. Paul School in Arkansas had high-speed Internet when Principal Daisy Dyer Duerr surveyed them a few years ago.

As more schools emphasize digital learning, they increasingly require students to do homework or access learning resources online after school. And that's led to what's been dubbed the homework gap: Students whose parents can't afford high-speed Internet access struggle to finish homework.

The Federal Communications Commission is working to close this gap by modernizing its Lifeline program for low-income families, which includes a broadband adoption pilot program to identify how the program that's traditionally provided discounts on phone service can increase broadband access. At the local level, school districts are working with the business community and others to provide Wi-Fi access in housing complexes and businesss locations.

For example, Coachella Valley Unified District in California parks buses at night throughout the community with Wi-Fi routers attached to them so students and others can tap into the Wi-Fi.

"Every child deserves that high-quality access to devices, Wi-Fi and content," said Thomas C. Murray, state and district digital learning director at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

In St. Paul, Ark., Principal Duerr spent the last four years turning around a school that was on a state improvement plan and nearly closed. She grew up in this small-town area and left a suburban job to make a difference in her rural community.

Because of a possible looming school closure, the community was open to trying radically different things to keep it open. Duerr worked with teachers, families and community leaders to show them what doors could be opened for a town where the attitude was that their kids couldn't go to college because they were from St. Paul.

While it's easy to look back now and see how far the school has come, it wasn't an easy road to travel. But once she got everyone on board, she could write grants to get technology and broadband from the state.

Despite the fact that few people had high-speed Internet, all of the students had mobile devices that they weren't allowed to use because of a district policy. Duerr was able to start a bring-your-own-device initiative that actually helped raise attendance rates in the process.

"Connectivity to my kids in rural America -- that's like powerlines to them, that's like their lifeblood," Duerr said. "They want to be at school to get that Wi-Fi."

With high-speed connections at school and their own devices, the 230 students at the K-12 school were able to videoconference with book authors, take virtual field trips and be exposed to life outside their county. And they no longer had an excuse for not applying to college.

Her first year there, Duerr set the expectation that in order to graduate, seniors had to be accepted to a trade school, college or the military. The students didn't think she could require them to do that, but she did, and the parents supported her.

In the four years she's been a principal there, every student has met that expectation. Not all of them end up going to college, but many more did who wouldn't have otherwise. And she helped both parents and students understand that finances shouldn't be an obstacle because they could receive federal assistance.

Now Duerr hopes to take her passion for rural schools and broaden her impact as a speaker and consultant. After this month, she'll be starting her work to help other rural schools reach their students with technology as one part of the puzzle.

But it's going to take more than one person to make a difference. It takes a community.

"You can't come in on your white horse and save the world," Duerr said. "You have to get everyone on the white horse with you."