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Rural schools get educational boost

SW/WC Service Cooperative receives grant to assist rural schools with distance learning

February 16, 2011
By Jenny Kirk

MARSHALL - Seventeen school districts in southwestern Minnesota recently got a boost - one that should help level the educational playing field between rural and metro schools - thanks to a $369,906 grant awarded to the Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative by the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development's Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) program.

Rural Development State Director Colleen Landkamer and a number of representatives from the offices of U.S. Congressman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., U.S. Congressman Tim Walz, D-Minn., Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. and Al Franken, D-Minn. were at the award ceremony Thursday in Marshall.

"We're trying to figure out how we put the limited dollars that we have in the best places," Landkamer said. "The distance learning grant is huge. It's going to open a whole new world for students."

Article Photos

Photo by Jenny Kirk
Rural Development State Director Colleen Landkamer, left, presented the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine program grant to Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative’s Josh Sumption, manager of information technology, and Forrest Fosheim, network coordinator, Thursday in Marshall.

Participating schools in the area - Canby, Lincoln HI Elementary School, Lincoln HI High School, Lynd, Marshall, Minneota, Russell-Tyler-Ruthton and Westbrook-Walnut Grove - filled out paperwork, worked closely with the Service Cooperative and agreed to match funding amounts for the equipment.

"The collaboration is the key, regionalism is the key," Landkamer said. "None of us can continue to do things the way we've done in the past. Times have changed and we need to figure out how regionally, we can make a difference in people's lives."

Nationally, 106 organizations were awarded nearly $35 million for DLT projects. The Service Cooperative was one of two recipients in Minnesota.

"This system will greatly expand and enhance what we've been doing for a number of years," said Josh Sumption, manager of information technology (IT) for the Service Cooperative and coordinator of the DLT project. "The need in our school districts is so severe that we needed to pour all of the funding we could into each of those concerned to expand the program potentials."

Part of the project is high definition, Sumption said, focusing on video conferencing for what has typically been referred to as ITV.

"It's something we started back in the 1980s and it's been an extremely successful platform for us," Sumption said. "There are ITV classes going on in a number of schools throughout the region, at every period of the day right now."

Sumption said that if it weren't for the ITV system, many of the schools wouldn't be able to offer certain electives, like Spanish, American sign language and agriculture.

"We equated it to trying to build and fill in that gap that exists between rural Minnesota schools in southwest Minnesota and the offerings that are available for the schools in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. We want our students to have the same opportunities."

Through the grant, the Service Cooperative will also expand its telepractice, which Sumption refers to as its 1-on-1 speech language therapy and education system developed in the past two years.

"Currently, we're using that system exclusively for speech language therapies, but we're starting to now get into doing deaf and hard of hearing therapies," Sumption said. "It's so those students can communicate with other students across districts and build a little camaraderie."

Sumption said that getting to this point was probably the easiest step in the process. The next step will be to utilize Service Cooperative's technology specialists Mike Carter, Forrest Fosheim and Josh Stukel to get everything set up and running.

"It's definitely a huge process to go through," Sumption said. "We've got school district technology coordinators in all these 17 schools that will have to pick up pieces and work with the technologies and get them up and running.

The final step will be working with teachers in the participating schools.

"The teachers are truly going to be the ones making use of the system and really making a difference in students' lives," Sumption said. "I think at that point, that's when the real success stories will start happening."

Bruce Houck, superintendent for Lincoln HI Elementary, Lynd and RTR, said that he is optimistic that the system will be in place and ready to go by the start of the 2011-2012 school year.

"It will open up a lot of opportunities that otherwise wouldn't be there," Houck said. "We're pretty excited about it."

Houck said that developing a Spanish curriculum at RTR Elementary and Lincoln HI Elementary is Step 1, followed by pursuing connections to the state library, historical society and science museum.

"Lynd has Spanish in the elementary already, so they would teach it to the other districts," Houck said. "But I see it going beyond that."

Not only will the DLT system - which includes the newest equipment available - enhance the education of students, it could be used for staff development and interaction as well.

"It'll be easy for the students because they're such technology natives," Houck said. "And, it's better quality equipment that moves quicker. There's no delay from the time their mouth moves to the time you hear them speaking. We'll have so much access from our own classroom."



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