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Rural schools step up information technology
Wired in the Country

Over the last 20 years, information technology has entered most of America's classrooms, bringing children access to a world of information and innovative teaching techniques. The quickening pace of technological change, though, means that schools face a continuing struggle to offer their students up-to-date equipment and services.

The challenge is particularly difficult for Texas' rural school districts. While they have largely succeeded in obtaining technological tools for their students, their isolation means that they often find it difficult to find qualified personnel to operate and service them.

Texas has it wired

Computers have become nearly as ubiquitous as chalkboards in modern schoolrooms. A September 2006 report by the National Center for Education Statistics concluded that 83 percent of American children in nursery school through grade 12 use computers at school; 43 percent use these computers to access the Internet.

Texas ranks relatively high in classroom technology. A May 2006 nationwide survey by Education Week rated Texas ninth overall among states on factors measuring the availability, access and capacity of educational technology.

Among other findings, Education Week reported that Texas' K-12 schools have one computer per 3.4 students and one computer with a high-speed Internet connection per 3.4 students as well, compared with national averages of 3.8 and 3.9 students, respectively. Many schools place computers in a separate lab room, but Texas has one classroom-based computer for every 6.8 students, versus a national average of 7.6.

The state seems to have a relatively small rural vs. urban "digital divide," at least in terms of equipment and connections. A May 2004 report by the Rural School and Community Trust reported that Texas' rural schools have adequate technology hardware and that most computers are connected to the Internet. The report further said there is no difference in the percentage of computers hooked up to the Internet in rural versus non-rural schools.

Funding the network

Texas schools can rely on several different funding sources for information and telecommunications technology.

Much of the original funding for wiring Texas' classrooms came from grants made by the state's Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (TIF), established in 1995. The fund generated $150 million annually to provide telecommunications access for schools, hospitals, libraries, and colleges and universities, according to the Texas Center for Education Research. This program, which was supported by assessments on telecommunications providers, ended in 2003.

Since September 1992, Texas also has provided school funding for computers, telecommunications and related teacher training through a special technology allotment within the Foundation School Program, the main vehicle for state education funding. The Legislative Budget Board reports that the allotment, which provides about $30 per enrolled student, will amount to $230 million for fiscal 2007.

At present, however, the most important source for technology funding in Texas schools may be the Schools and Libraries Program of the federal Universal Service Fund, commonly known as "E-Rate" funding.

"Almost all school districts in Texas build their networking structures primarily off of E-Rate," said Jacque Davidson, director of Technology and Instructional Media Services for Texas' Region 19 Education Service Center. "E-Rate has been a tremendous help to [rural] districts."

E-Rate funding provides substantial discounts and reimbursements for eligible products and services to both public and private schools, said Cathey George, statewide school coordinator for the program.

"The telecommunications and Internet access services you can buy [are] on an eligible services list, and you can get a discount based on poverty [rates] and the location of the schools," George said. "You can range from 90 percent all the way down to a 20 percent discount in this program."

George reported that E-Rate has committed nearly $1.8 billion to Texas schools since 1998.

Sharing bandwidth

School districts and the state's Education Service Centers have tried a number of approaches to stretch their technology funds as far as possible. One successful effort in 2004 gave predominately rural schools in the state's education Region 8--11 counties in northeastern Texas--a huge increase in bandwidth. Bandwidth is a measure of the maximum amount of information that can be transmitted through a network.

An outsourcing arrangement with a private company linked 46 schools in the region via one of the larger wireless infrastructures in the country, said David Mabe, deputy executive director for the Region 8 Education Service Center.

The vendor-supplied network, which includes e-mail services and appropriate firewall protection, costs most of the participating schools a little more, but it supplies anywhere from 40 to 143 times the amount of bandwidth previously available.

"What we're discovering is that we're giving everybody more ability, more bandwidth, and they're just gobbling that up," said Mabe. "It's exciting to me that we can provide that kind of access to our rural [schools]. When you look at 75 percent of the districts we serve, they don't have a broadband alternative for their little communities--it doesn't exist. I'm very proud of what we've put together."

Do it yourself

While Texas' rural districts generally have the technology equipment, finding the people they need to service it can be a challenge. In 2004, the Rural School and Community Trust reported that adequate technology staff in all locales in Texas was in short supply, and that in rural Texas, teachers often assumed the job of coordinating equipment and providing technical support as an extra duty.

"One of the keys in the rural areas is that there's not an abundance of network technicians or vendors to supply those services," said Randy Moczygemba, superintendent of Medina Independent School District (ISD) in rural Bandera and Kerr counties. "You're having to call vendors out of a larger city. I'm fortunate to have a full-time technology director. A lot of small districts don't have a full-time person. They're trying to do it with part-time personnel."

Moczygemba, however, has made a do-it-yourself approach work for his schools, both at Medina and in a previous position with Lamesa ISD. At Lamesa, Moczygemba and his staff installed their own equipment.

"I found out very quickly that we could save a lot of money by doing the installation ourselves," he said. "And by installing it ourselves, it made it a lot easier for us to service it, because we knew where all the cable ran and where the connection points were.

"[At Lamesa], I asked the superintendent to allow me to hire three high school seniors every year who had all the credits they needed and could work with me half-days. I trained them in the summer on how to do cabling, PC repair and software installations. It was a wonderful experience for those kids, and saved us as a district a tremendous amount of money."

Moczygemba replicated this approach in Medina ISD.

"We do everything ourselves," he said. "We don't have any outside vendors doing maintenance for us at all. We do all of our installations. I've trained our custodians and our principals."

As a result, this small district, with just two campuses, has assembled an impressive technological base that also serves the local library and a county government building.

"We have multi-media projectors in every classroom, and we're adding wireless graphics tablets," said Moczygemba, adding that he ultimately hopes to have all classroom lessons recorded and made available to students through the Internet.

Bruce Wright

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