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How schools with the slowest Internet could get re-wired

February 16, 2016 at 6:25 PM EST
Across the U.S., many schools have taken full advantage of online learning opportunities. But that’s not so easy for the nearly 10 percent of all students who come from rural areas with inadequate infrastructure. New changes to an FCC program could help schools by offering to fund fiber networks of their own. Special correspondent John Tulenko of Education Week reports from Mississippi.
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GWEN IFILL: Now to the digital divide in public education.

Nearly 10 percent of all students attend rural schools, where the simple act of going online can hamper their ability to learn.

Education Week, which partners with the NewsHour, visited schools in Mississippi with the slowest Internet in the state.

Special correspondent John Tulenko reports on the problem, and what’s being done to fix it, part of our weekly education coverage we call Making the Grade.

JOHN TULENKO: Calhoun County in Northeast Mississippi covers nearly 600 care miles, most of it farmland dotted by a few small downs like Vardaman.

C.J. WEDDLE, Calhoun County Resident: Vardaman is about as small-town country as it gets. And everybody knows everybody. And most everybody is kin to everybody.

JOHN TULENKO: This is sweet potato country, home to 17-year-old Clemi Jean  Weddle, who goes by C.J.

C.J. WEDDLE: If you count the work I have put in this summer, I would be a fifth-generation sweet potato farmer.

JOHN TULENKO: C.J. is doing well in high school and she’s planning ahead.

C.J. WEDDLE: I see myself graduating from a four-year college and a degree I want where I can have multiple job opportunities and not be confined to one.

JOHN TULENKO: But standing between C.J. and her college dreams is a major problem, the Internet at her school.

C.J. WEDDLE: The Internet is very contrary at Vardaman High School. You have good, you have bad days, but at Vardaman, you have more bad than good.

JOHN TULENKO: Schools here have the slowest Internet service in all of Mississippi.

C.J. WEDDLE: History classes are limited to books and worksheets. Well, you don’t do research on significant figures in history or significant figures the government now, and that — I think that’s really going to hurt us later. You know, why be limited to that, when there’s a whole world at your fingertips or potentially could be?

JOHN TULENKO: The Internet here is slow because it comes via old copper wires running for miles underground. Even though high-speed cables have been laid by a phone company on one side of the district, on the other side, a second company has said upgrading its service is too expensive.

Without those new cables, there is no high-speed Internet for schools and students like Pam Odom’s sixth graders.

PAM ODOM, Bruce Upper Elementary: These are rural children. Most of them have never been outside Mississippi. There’s a large portion of them that have never been out of a 60-mile radius of this town. And if our technology is slow, I can’t expose them to anything.

JOHN TULENKO: Meanwhile, the rest of the state is racing ahead.

AMANDA REISER, Oxford Intermediate School: Make sure you have all that copied down.

JOHN TULENKO: Amanda Reiser teaches sixth grade in Oxford, Mississippi, a more affluent college town just 30 minutes away.

How hard is it for you to go online?

AMANDA REISER: It’s not hard at all. They can get online and do research anytime throughout the day really with any teacher has a cart or a computer is available.

JOHN TULENKO: And that’s just the start.

AMANDA REISER: Our curriculum is 100 percent online, so quizzes, homework and tests are all completed online. We can add enrichment lessons or we can have an intervention lesson or we can add more practice on a certain topic or a certain lesson and kind of make sure they understand those fundamental basics before we move on.

JOHN TULENKO: Looking around, it suddenly hit us. Something was missing.

Do you have any books in this room?

AMANDA REISER: I do have some books, text books available.

JOHN TULENKO: Where?

AMANDA REISER: They’re hidden behind the beautiful curtains.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN TULENKO: Back in Calhoun County, they’re still using textbooks every day.

And while computers and Internet access are no guarantee of a better education, without them, students are at an unfair disadvantage. It’s a problem in rural districts across the country. Some 20 percent currently lack access to high-speed fiber.

But help could come from new changes to the $4 billion federal E-Rate program, which helps schools pay for Internet service.

TOM WHEELER, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission: What we did was, we said, OK, schools, if you’re not being provided service or not being provided service at a reasonable rate by your local provider, you can build it yourself.

JOHN TULENKO: Tom Wheeler, who heads the Federal Communications Commission, led an effort to overhaul the E-Rate program, in part by giving districts like Calhoun County the option to use federal funds to build fiber networks of their own, pressuring local telecoms to offer better deals.

TOM WHEELER: School administrators say, I’m not going to put up with it anymore, that I’m being told it’s too expensive, or I’m being told it can’t be built. But you actually can take the situation, and the SEC will help you take that situation in your hand by funding it, that’s a game-changer.

JOHN TULENKO: Recently, Calhoun County became the test case, one of the first districts to seek federal funds to build a new fiber network that included the option of a build-out of its own.

Mike Moore is superintendent of schools.

MIKE MOORE, Superintendent, Calhoun County School District: All of these providers and all start popping up and saying, well, maybe we can do this, and maybe we can do that. But I don’t think — until we talked about really building our own line and putting the bids out, I don’t really think they were serious.

JOHN TULENKO: As it has turned out, schools here won’t have to build their own network. By inviting outside companies to bid on the job or come in with their own fiber, the district was able to secure a more attractive contract from its local providers to complete the job.

But it will take some time, maybe a year, hopefully not too late for C.J. Weddle, who will be a senior.

C.J. WEDDLE: I’m a very competitive person. I’m not a sore loser, but I don’t like to lose.

JOHN TULENKO: No one said fixing this problem was going to be easy.

In Calhoun County, Mississippi, I’m John Tulenko of Education Week, reporting for the “PBS NewsHour.”

GWEN IFILL: The Education Week team has extensive coverage about broadband in rural schools at EdWeek.org.

Online, you can also watch our recent story on how one of the poorest school districts in the country grappled with similar problems and decided to outfit its school buses with Wi-Fi. You can find that on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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