Broadband, not buses

Posted on September 3, 2010. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

Normally, there’s a sense of new energy during the back-to-school season.

Starting a new school year means new classes, new clothes and lists of school supplies. It’s a standard marker of excited progress, going back generations.

But there’s a melancholy shadow darkening spirits as students start back at Weiner public schools. The return to classes this year marks not a beginning, but an ending. Weiner missed the state enrollment minimum and was ordered to consolidate.

In theory, the consolidation with the Harrisburg School District doesn’t require closure of the Weiner campus. In reality, its days are numbered.

If there’s a grander travesty in public education policy than shutting down a school with high test scores, strong parental and patron support, lower than average operating costs and a zero dropout rate, I don’t know what it is.

The sad episode is indicative of a much larger blight on Arkansas education, however, and that’s an inclination to look backward when policymakers should be looking ahead.

Arkansas is a rural state. Technology is transforming rural lives today much as electrification did in the middle of the last century. Few experiences today are anything like they were 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

Television offered a handful of channels then and hundreds now. Telephones of the past were hardwired and locked to locations. Today mobile phones are carried as ubiquitously as wallets and even smaller. Computers used to look like machines with floppy disks reminiscent of 45 records. No one under 40 can remember either, and the smallest processors can’t even be seen with the naked eye. Friends and families separated by distance connect and share and converse with one another instantly using e-mail and social websites.

And this digital age, in which everyone is creating content like texts,photos, blogs and more, has ushered in an exponential expansion of data. This year technology will allow Americans to create, consume and catalog more information than in all of human history combined. Next year will set another record.

Meanwhile, in the world of education, we keep reaching for yesterday’s stars. Just when studies are pointing to the success of smaller schools and analyses are exposing the myths of consolidation savings, what do we do? Close small schools in the name of economics. Why not insist on going back to old party-line phones to save money, too?

Arkansas has an embarrassing reputation as a backward state, and in education innovation we’re all too happy to overachieve in upholding it. At a time when state government ought to be leading the way in implementing broadband to connect our rural students and schools, it remains focused on the past’s low-tech methodology, like buses.

Rural schools should be benefiting from the technological revolution and a true Grade A effort would begin with the premise of how to educate a rural population.

Starting there, one of the worst plans, especially in the Internet age, would be to bus children to far-away schools. The only reason anybody wants to do that is because that’s what has always been done in other places that weren’t Arkansas.

An open-minded, honest assessment, the kind that sparks innovation, would first exhaust the possibility of bringing education to rural children. Why not transport teachers instead of children? Commutes to work are common and more preferable than kids languishing on long bus routes.

At the high school level, why not experiment with college-type M-W-F and T-Th classes that reduce the necessity of daily attendance by certain subject teachers?

Video conferencing is being utilized in the business world for training. Online college courses are booming. The Internet is a treasure trove of unimaginable proportions in its ability to expose students to different cultures, places, ideas.

The sad truth is, there are as many ways to teach children as there are to skin a cat, but nobody in charge at the Education Department seems willing to entertain, much less pursue, new or novel alternatives.

When Weiner and Delight proposed a long-distance administrative consolidation utilizing advanced, technology-based learning techniques so that both local campuses could remain open, the state Education Board summarily dismissed the notion, barely pretending to listen.

A head-in-the-sand approach typically leads to failure and extinction in a free market. In the protected monopoly of public education, failing school policies can linger like the undead inhorror movies. Have we become so comfortable with mediocrity?

Broadband is the future of education and buses are the past. Successful rural schools like Weiner should be laboratories of innovation for truly progressive learning that preserves the local community.

Presented with such a rich opportunity, it’s frustrating, if not surprising, that Arkansas’ literal response is to shut the doors on it.

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One Response to “Broadband, not buses”

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It’s a problem when politicians tout they are supporting rural communities but don’t know the first thing about us. Where I grew up, when you came across a problem, you didn’t wring your hands and say that nothing can be done about it and go on your way… you rolled up your sleeves and FIXED THE PROBLEM! If the State of Arkansas has laws that are detrimental to a vast group of its citizens, then those laws need to be addressed. Just admit mistakes were made and clean up the mess that’s become Arkansas’ educational system. If it’s not the mess I describe, then why are we still at the bottom of the proverbial barrel?? Over-crowding schools, bussing kids from one district to another resulting in WAY TOO LONG bus rides, hampering student extra-curricular involvement, parental involvement, and costing the taxpayer WAY more in incentives, new construction, and transportation has been the result of current policy. I’m sorry but trying to persuade the public how consolidation is a money saver just won’t fly anymore. I can show you lots of studies which followed up on school consolidations that came to the conclusion the idea a substantial savings resulted, was unfounded by their findings. For example, the annexation of Weiner and Harrisburg School Districts into one district saved the salary of one superintendent and one secretary. Weigh that against the 2.6 million the Harrisburg district receives just for taking Weiner in. You do the math!

In the county with the “worst” college graduation rate in the state, closing a school that has a graduation rate of 96% and most years 100% which prepares college-bound students and has the parental and community support that Weiner boasts, just makes no sense! See verification below.

Officials with the Arkansas State University Delta Center for Economic Development met recently with local mayors, county officials and a state legislator about plans to support the program.
The county is a part of a project sponsored by the Delta Center and the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas called “Powering Rural Development.”
During the meeting officials were presented a report detailing the demographics, strengths and weaknesses of Poinsett County.

The report projects possible population losses of around 5 percent over the next four years. The report shows a wide range on per capita income, from $14,094 in Marked Tree to $27,223 in Weiner, for 2009.

The report also shows that the county has an above-average percentage of high school graduates compared to state and national figures.

However, the report provides conflicted information on college and other post-secondary work.

“Persons with a 2-year degree or more are significantly below the statewide and national averages,” according to the report. “The towns of Fisher, Weiner, and Waldenburg represent the highest percentage of persons with a bachelor’s degree, and Weiner leads the category of persons with a graduate degree.” This is in the entire county…

The towns of Fisher, Waldenburg, and Weiner make up the Weiner School District in Poinsett County. Or I should say, the “former” school district.

Thank you, Dana, for continuing to voice your outrage at those who would keep Arkansas education on a tract to nowhere.
Thank you Jim Keet, Republican candidate for Arkansas Governor, Jason Rapart, Candidate for Arkansas Senate District 18, and Buddy Lovell, incumbent Democratic candidate for Arkansas House of Representatives District 56 for standing with Weiner and all rural Arkansas schools and state that something can and needs to be done about this issue.

Rural Arkansans will remember that come November.


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