Funding a rural school district’s 1-to-1 initiative.
GUEST COLUMN | by Dale Ellis and Jeff James
In order for technology to have a foothold in our rural Montgomery County School District in Troy, NC, we had some hefty obstacles to overcome. First, as a county located in the midst of the Uwharrie mountain range, 20 percent of our community has no internet access. Second, we are designated as a “low wealth” county by the state, and 74 percent of our 4,200-plus students are economically disadvantaged. Third, we cover a wide geographic area including five municipalities meaning many of our students have long bus rides, some as long as two hours each way to and from school.
We began by outfitting the eight busses which had the longest rides, and based on the success of this pilot are now planning to outfit all of our 60 busses with these hotspots.
Being a small rural community has its challenges. There will always be issues to face head-on and overcome, but access to the latest technologies for a high quality 21st century education should not be one of them. When we decided to implement a 1:1 initiative to better prepare our students to graduate life-ready and globally competitive, we knew we needed some outside support. Our Board of Education supports innovative approaches to learning and supported our efforts on this initiative. In addition, we applied for and won an Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund grant from the U.S. Department of Education and received additional support from partners Curriculum Associates, Golden LEAF Foundation and Dream Builders Communications. With these funds, we launched a new initiative, ‘A Culture Creating Effective Systems for Success’ (ACCESS), which will:
- Provide high-quality teaching and learning resources that can be accessed anytime, anywhere
- Expand the reach of effective teachers by creating ACCESS Ambassadors, supporting instructional redesign and providing new opportunities for professional learning
- Create a process for teachers and students to readily access assessment data to improve instruction and monitor student progress.
With this $3.5 million grant which will run over three years and the support of our partners, we are providing laptops to all students in grades 5-12, as well as internet access in a number of ways so students can continue their learning outside of the classroom. In addition to the hardware and connectivity, we are implementing Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready Diagnostic and Instruction to support student acceleration and intervention and providing intensive professional development to educators to ensure they are comfortable implementing the technology. We are also using Title 1 funding to provide laptops to students in grades 3-4 and iPads for students in grades K-2.
In order to address our connectivity issues, we brought key stakeholders together in a “hotspot” committee to determine how to increase wireless capabilities throughout our district. This committee included the mayors of each town we serve, multiple internet providers and community members. The committee was designed to get everyone around the table to figure out how best to provide connectivity and help all students maximize their learning time with technology. One opportunity that came into focus was the amount of time some of our students were spending on school busses. By working with Verizon, we were able to create mobile hotspots on the busses, meaning students could access the internet on their long rides to and from school. We began by outfitting the eight busses which had the longest rides, and based on the success of this pilot are now planning to outfit all of our 60 busses with these hotspots. By providing internet access on busses, students can work on homework and make progress on i-Ready lessons before and after school. We are thrilled to have already seen an increase in students’ grades since the hotspot program was implemented.
According to Griselda, an eighth-grade student at East Middle School, “The Wi-Fi is very beneficial especially for those who do not have access at home. It helps those who ride the bus in the morning get a jump start on their assignments or complete work before school. It really helps provide time to ensure you can stay on top of your school work.”
Another unintended outcome of providing internet on school busses was a decline in discipline issues. We have seen a 75 percent decrease in reported incidents, which is remarkable. We now see students working both independently on i-Ready and collaboratively on homework instead of becoming disruptive and unruly during their commutes.
To help students who are homebound, we are offering portable hotspots that students can take home. This has decreased the amount of time it takes a student to get caught up on school work when they are out of the classroom for an extended period of time.
Since receiving the grant, we have quadrupled our broadband speeds throughout the district. Thanks to the financial support we have received, we have also been able to upgrade the technology infrastructure in our buildings.
We have a great start with technology, and our families have only had praise for our efforts. With the implementation of these new technologies, our families are gladly supporting our efforts by contributing a nominal technology fee which will help us maintain the initiative past the grant’s three years.
Our hotspot committee is still meeting regularly, and our next step is to put all Wi-Fi access points in our service area on a map to determine where the most need is. This is the first time multiple internet providers in our community have come together to help meet the needs of our district. It is exciting to see all of the support we are getting for our initiative and how the initiative is changing the landscape for learning in our district. When you have that type of environment, even in a small rural community, you can accomplish great things for children.
Dale Ellis, Ph.D., is Superintendent of Montgomery County Schools in Troy, NC.
Jeff James is Assistant Superintendent of Montgomery County Schools.