Problem: Combating small budgets and teacher shortages in rural school districts is not easy. In 2000 the Southeast Colorado Consortium, serving 4,529 students and consisting of 13 districts in a 6,000 square mile area, was searching for a way to give their students more educational opportunities despite the lack of teachers in the area.
Solution: For the past four years, Southeastern BOCES has been using a distance learning system that allows host districts to share its brightest teachers with other members that might be struggling to offer a particular course. "We have trouble recruiting teachers," says Ian DeBono, Granada (host district) superintendent, "so if one district were to get a good math teacher who is willing to lead a class through distance learning, then other districts can benefit from that person."
How It Works
Specially trained instructors wishing to host a course notify Southeastern BOCES, who then notifies other remote districts of courses being offered. Enrollment does not exceed 24 students per class unless special permission is granted. "The majority of the courses offered at this time are by instructors who have taught at least two to three years over the distance learning system," explains Loraine Saffer, director of technology for Southeastern BOCES.
Through live interactive video and audio conferencing, students engage in daily discussion with the instructor as well as students from other remote locations. The instructor has full access of all equipment by remote control.
Some remote districts have supervisors to keep kids on task, but for the most part, students behave. "Behavior problems at a remote site are dealt with by the remote site principals," Saffer says.
Making Ends Meet
This may sound like a costly endeavor, but Southeastern BOCES was not on its own. The majority of the project was paid for through grants and E-rate funding.
The fiber connections, purchased through the Southeast Colorado Power Association, cost $10,000 per mile and link 303 miles between the 13 districts. The equipment was purchased from BNI Solutions, and the cost of setting up each classroom was $465,000.
In addition, each receiving district must pay $125 per student per semester per course. Ten percent goes to Southeastern BOCES for maintenance and repairs. The remaining 90 percent goes to the host district, where the instructor usually gets the full amount. With districts paying the $125 per student fee rather than the salary of an in-house teacher, long-term savings are yet to be determined.
Student Tested, Administrator Approved
For rural districts, distance learning is a viable long-term solution for "dealing with the teacher shortages, small budgets in rural districts and meeting the requirements of the highly qualified teacher of the No Child Left Behind act," Saffer says.
Students make the same amount of academic progress as they would in a traditional classroom. "We have not noticed any variation in the ACT or SAT scores of students taking courses through the distance learning system and those students in a traditional classroom," Saffer says.
In some cases, DeBono argues, distance learning could be better because those students have increased access and interaction with students outside of their own district.
Dual-credit distance learning courses for the 2004-05 first semester include driver's education, general psychology, Spanish I and II, English composition I, college algebra, calculus, economics, college English and world regional geography.
Michelle Lawler is editorial assistant.