Tag Archives: rural

Remake Learning Days Preview: West Virginia

Though the state is relatively rural, it is rich in history, arts and culture, and outdoor adventures.  As they traverse mountains and rolling hills, West Virginians won’t have to look far to find a Remake Learning Days event this May 15-26. With more than 30 on the docket, events will showcase everything from making at the Robert C. Byrd Institute in Huntington to science projects at West Virginia University to family STEM activities in Charleston.

It’s a statewide celebration of innovation — much of which has been forged in the face of unique challenges, says Jim Denova, president of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. “One of the distinguishing features of West Virginia is that some communities are very isolated — particularly in very rural places where there’s little broadband connectivity,” he says. “While that can be a barrier, there have been some very resourceful efforts to innovate. West Virginians have this kind of ingenuity and grit.”

He cites Marshall University’s June Harless Center for Rural Educational Research and Development, born out of a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE LAB, as an example. “It’s a place where roboticists team up with teacher trainers in southern West Virginia and ask, ‘What are the challenges here, and how can tech be a bridge?’ Then the team invents education technology in response to those challenges. It’s a remarkable partnership.”

Emily Schoen Pratt and Dr. Amelia Courts of the Education Alliance

The 73-year-old Benedum Foundation, along with other organizations such as Chevron and the Education Alliance, works to equip West Virginians with advanced tools for the classroom and beyond. “We’ve always put the teacher and the student at the center of the equation, looking at how we can empower teachers and educators to find new ways of addressing the challenges they see in their students,” says Denova. “Remake Learning Days is a way to showcase organizations and schools that are doing great work. In West Virginia, the Education Alliance helps us ensure that their stories get told — and that what we learn from them transcends borders.”

To learn more about what’s happening in West Virginia, we sat down with Dr. Amelia Courts, president and CEO of the Education Alliance; and Emily Schoen Pratt, the Alliance’s director of communications and national service programs.


Can you talk a bit about the Education Alliance and its work in West Virginia?

Dr. Amelia Courts: We’re a statewide nonprofit that’s been around for 35 years. Our goal is to bring business and community support to public schools, which we do in a number of different ways. First, we equip students with extra support through mentoring programs such as our AmeriCorps on the Frontline dropout-prevention effort. We also involve business and community volunteers in providing mentoring and positive role models for students.

Another focus is bringing business and community support to the school level —through the Born Learning Academy, for example, which is funded by Toyota. The program provides grants to schools to help them engage families in using everyday teachable moments to help children learn, particularly during the critical birth-to-age-five period before they enter school. The program, which we offer at a number of schools across the state, also helps families develop literacy skills and good nutrition. We also fund eight STEM Network Schools across the state, providing them with additional resources and support to enhance learning in science, math, engineering, and technology — all of which are critical to both students and the business community.

The final area of our work is what we call systems-level work. We try to be the voice of business and to ensure that the business community has a seat at the table in discussions about education and strengthening our public schools.


How did the Education Alliance get involved with Remake Learning?

 AC: I’m a member of the Remake Learning Council, which is a collaborative group of individuals from southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia that come together to support education innovation across the region. There are lots of wonderful things happening in the Pittsburgh area that we can learn from in West Virginia, and vice versa. Two years ago, the Council determined that as a region, we needed to highlight the many places that are remaking learning in incredible ways, and also to involve the broader community in those efforts so that families, community leaders, and businesses could be a part of it, too. That’s how Remake Learning Days came to be, and we’re very pleased to be involved for a second year.


Emily Schoen Pratt: In West Virginia, Remake Learning Days has been a great opportunity for organizations and schools to host events that they otherwise wouldn’t have had funding for. They’ve really been able to highlight some creative, hands-on, engaging experiences for kids. Last year, with support from Remake Learning, we were able to provide grants to 20 organizations across West Virginia that wanted to host events. It was one of the most successful grant programs we’ve had in the past several years, and we saw huge amounts of activity in the media and online. Remake Learning was kind of a buzzword; things were very energetic and happening during that first week. So we’re excited to do it again, especially with the expanded schedule this year. It gives us time to hold more events and draw in even larger numbers of people.


What makes West Virginia special?

AC: Emily and I are both native West Virginians. I think oftentimes, when someone from our state talks about where they’re from, they’ll mention their home county or district. Automatically, when you say Berkeley County, which is in the eastern part of the state, you have a visual that’s very different than here in Kanawha County. Or if you’re from Monongalia County where West Virginia University is located, that’s obviously very different given that it’s a university town. The culture of the state is very diverse and often depends on the geography of the region you’re in.

But there are a couple of things that unite us. We’re very determined people — West Virginians have strong work ethic. Recently, we’ve faced a lot of economic challenges. I think it’s in the news right now that we currently have a huge budget deficit that we’re struggling to address. But in general, we’re very resilient, and we work to pass that on to our children. I’ve been to Pittsburgh many times, and I enjoy everything about that region, but I also like to come home. I enjoy West Virginia’s rural communities and natural beauty.


ESP: We do have a lot of beautiful areas and natural resources. Whether people are interested in hiking, biking, or whitewater rafting, West Virginians really enjoy the outdoors.


Are there any particular Remake Learning Days events that you’re particularly excited about?

AC: Honestly, I can’t say that there’s any one that I’m more excited about than any other. I really do believe that they’re all exciting, because the events and the organizations hosting them are very diverse. For example, the Second Annual Blackshere Garden Fair at Blackshere Elementary School in Mannington is using their school garden and having hands-on food prep activities, and you can just imagine how fun that will be for students and how engaging it will be for the entire community. And then at Wheeling Park High School on May 25, they’re going to have STEM-A-Palooza, which is a mini-maker fair. They’re involving the broader community and local universities. They’re going to have booths, laser cutting, 3D printers, sewing machines — all of those wonderful things. There are so many great events coming up, and I’m happy I get to see them!


ESP: I’ve been really impressed by the diversity of the organizations that are participating, from libraries to schools to community organizations. All these different organizations feel that remaking learning is important to them and their communities, and they put the work in to make something really engaging and fun for kids.



This blog is part of “Neighborhood Navigators: Remaking Learning in Your Neighborhood,” a special initiative to connect children and youth in six Pittsburgh neighborhoods and West Virginia to Remake Learning Days (May 15-26). Each week, we’ll spotlight a new community. In Pittsburgh, we’ll visit neighborhoods in the Northside, the Hilltop, the Hill District, the Mon Valley, the East End, and Hazelwood; in West Virginia, we’ll visit Morgantown, Charleston, and Wheeling.

Remake Learning thanks the Education Alliance for coordinating the West Virginia’s events and outreach. To learn more, visit the organization’s website or follow them on Twitter @TheEduAlliance.

Follow writer Ryan Rydzewski on Twitter @RyanRydzewski. 

In Appalachia, Preparing for Life After Coal

President Trump has vowed to “put coal country back to work.” On the campaign trail he promised to bring back jobs to the industry. And in February, he got rid of a stream protection regulation he called a “job-killing rule.”

But many in the region aren’t counting on President Trump to solve all their problems.

Instead, new programs in states hit by deindustrialization aim to diversify local economies, retrain workers, and create a pipeline of new workers prepared for jobs, like coding, in the new economy.

Education, and “re-education,” are big parts of this picture.

In “The Next Big Blue Collar Job is Coding,” Wired Magazine’s Clive Thompson thinks learning to code may be akin to learning to weld in the past—a path to the middle class. He points to local programs like CodeTN that is encouraging local high school students in Tennessee to attend coding programs at community colleges. Thompson argues that introducing kids to vocational training in computer science in high school may be a better idea than always urging four-year degrees.

“These sorts of coders won’t have the deep knowledge to craft wild new algorithms for flash trading or neural networks. Why would they need to? That level of expertise is rarely necessary at a job. But any blue-collar coder will be plenty qualified to sling Java­Script for their local bank. That’s a solidly middle-class job, and middle-class jobs are growing: The national average salary for IT jobs is about $81,000 (more than double the national average for all jobs), and the field is set to expand by 12 percent from 2014 to 2024, faster than most other occupations.”

In the Pittsburgh region, husband and wife duo Amanda Laucher and Jonathan Graham are developing programs to train coal miners to code, for free. Mining Minds, in Greene County just south of Pittsburgh, helps displaced coal miners learn to code from the comfort of their homes. Laucher, a Greene County native, saw her brother struggle to find a job after coal and it struck her that she could help. She and her husband, an avid coder, launched Mining Minds as a nonprofit coding school. “They heard from coal miners and economic developers in the region that these guys didn’t want to drive for training,” Linda Topoleski of Allegheny Conference on Community Development told us. So they brought coding to them. Not only can miners learn to code online, but they can then become contract coders and work online from home.

These efforts are also tackling another problem: the pipeline is empty. Pittsburgh’s local institutions are working closely with businesses and technology firms to address the region’s “pipeline problem” —the fact that the region isn’t graduating enough children with the skills they need to meet future employer demand.

As we wrote on this blog in the fall:

Catalyst Connection, an economic development organization focused on small manufacturers, for example, connects employers with students directly. The organization runs ten-week programs that have students solving real-world problems for the business. Students visit the company, learn about an issue or problem that has arisen, and then go back to the classroom to come up with a solution.”

“We aren’t so crazy to think we can just train people for jobs that don’t exist,” says Jeff Hawkins, the director of the education cooperative in Kentucky. “We have to train them in technical areas for jobs that they can get immediately.”

And who knows where that will lead. Governing Magazine recently reported on the Kentucky Valley Education Cooperative, 19 school districts in the southeastern part of the state that was originally formed to pool their purchasing power and save money on basic supplies.

Now, writes Governing’s Alan Greenblatt “it runs all kinds of joint training ventures—participating in computer hackathons for rural health, instructing kids on aviation and aeronautics, helping students combine coal spores with algae to create a new biofuel. The results have been impressive. The percentage of high school students who are assessed as ready for college or careers is nearly 90 percent—up from less than 60 percent five years ago.”

Connecting Rural Schools

Earlier this year, amid a fierce legal battle, it appeared that school districts across Idaho were about to lose broadband internet access.

Luckily, schools secured individual contracts after the statewide system was disbanded. But the scare shed light on the need for good internet access in schools. Educators, students, and parents had braced for a strain on communications, changes to lesson plans, a lack of access to online information, and an inability to take standardized tests.

Shoddy or unaffordable connectivity is a constant for many American school systems. A three-part series in Education Week shows how rural public schools are struggling to provide basic internet access to their 12 million students.

In some cases, geographic isolation makes it hard and expensive to run high-speed lines to schools. Large telecommunications companies see little value in serving tiny populations. Local companies step in—often taking advantage of market dominance to charge inflated rates.

Take two western New Mexico campuses featured in the Education Week story. The schools share 22 megabits per second of bandwidth (mbps), for which a regional carrier charges them $3,700 a month. The same speed would cost most American schools $550, according to Education Week.

At one school it takes a teacher 30 minutes to enter 15 students’ names in the digital attendance system.
Or consider a district in Calhoun County, Mississippi, where a single wire brought the school system 1.5 mbps (the average connection speed in the United States is 11.9 mbps). When the schools bought new computers with federal stimulus money, the infrastructure could not support them. Their service providers added three mbps for an additional $5,000 per month, but little improved. It still takes a teacher 30 minutes to enter 15 students’ names in the digital attendance system. An administrator described the “gut-wrenching” feeling of watching students trying to take a standardized test and running out of time because the video-based questions and online calculators would not load.

Students who lack regular internet access don’t have the same opportunities as their national peers. As traditional rural industries experience hardships, economic and academic mobility require digital proficiency.

Clemmie Jean Weddle, a 17-year-old Calhoun County student who wants to go to Mississippi State, is well aware she is missing out. Passionate about learning, she joined the quiz bowl team and studied hard at the school’s computer lab before the first state competition. But the 15-minute lag each time she opened a webpage put her leagues behind her competitors, Education Week reported.

Those struggles hit close to home. Just hours outside Pittsburgh, rural districts in West Virginia face challenges getting connected. Last year, we reported on major leaps in digital learning opportunities in the region, thanks to a combination of grants, public money, and partnerships with Pittsburgh programs. Most schools in West Virginia, half of which are rural, have decent internet access now. The same is not true for the students’ homes.

The 2013 American Community Survey puts West Virginia in the bottom 10 states in terms of home internet access. Only 71.8 percent of individuals live in homes with high-speed internet, compared to a national average of 78.1 percent and a high of 85.7 percent in New Hampshire. The federal ConnectHome initiative brings internet to low-income housing, but so far the program includes only 28 cities.

As traditional rural industries experience hardships, economic and academic mobility require digital proficiency.
The benefit of internet access at school is diminished if the students cannot continue their work at home, said John Ross, an edtech consultant and researcher who has lived and worked in rural districts. “It’s not just typing up a Word document,” he said. “It’s having access to rich media, to simulations, to animations, to pulling down real time data, to communication and collaboration.”

There is some hope for improvement. The federal program E-rate program uses fees on consumer phone bills to help cover internet and phone service at schools and libraries. As of this fall, Education Week reports, more money is available through the program, and telecoms will be required to reveal their school rates. The noncompetitive companies may risk losing government subsidies. The overhaul of the E-rate program is part of Obama’s 2013 pledge to bring high-speed internet to 99 percent of American students by 2018, but critics say the market-based solution is not enough.

Much of the conversation today about the “digital divide”—the disparity between students who have access to technology and those who do not—is focused on devices. Which schools can afford laptops? How should teachers incorporate donated Chromebooks into their lesson plans? Are cellphones a distraction or a useful learning tool?

But in swaths of the country, those questions are far from central. When schools cannot provide basic internet connection, their students are at a disadvantage in a society and job market that increasingly demands digital competency.



For Rural Kids, Technology Opens New Horizons

Only three years ago, a stretch of land off King Coal Highway in Mingo County, West Virginia, was a deserted strip mine. Today, it’s Mingo Central Comprehensive High School, complete with a 3D printer, a 1-to-1 laptop program, interactive whiteboards, and a hands-on pre-engineering program that gives students free college credit from West Virginia University.

As a rural county at the southern tip of the state, Mingo County has relied on grants, and state and local funds to infuse its classrooms with modern technology. (In West Virginia, each county is one school district.) It’s been no easy feat for the county, which has been hit hard by the recession, on top of its small tax base. But, as Mingo County STEM Coordinator Richard Duncan puts it, “Somehow we beat that.”

In Pittsburgh and nationally, educators have seen how integrating meaningful technology into schools and informal learning spaces engages kids, introduces them to career paths, and equips them with critical 21st century skills. But for rural communities like Mingo County, providing students with the same resources comes with a bevy of extra challenges that make access tougher, and at the same time, all the more critical.

A little over half of all schools in West Virginia are rural, according to the Rural School and Community Trust. Many of these rural communities’ economies have revolved around coal since the early 19th century. Mingo County is no exception, and the area’s ties to coal are evident in the mascot of the two-year-old high school—the miner.

But over the last two decades, the downsizing of the coal industry has caused Mingo County and the surrounding Appalachian region to fall on even tougher economic times. As coal jobs drained out of the area, the poverty rate climbed to the point that Mingo County’s schools now participate in a community eligibility option, meaning the poverty rate is high enough for every student to automatically receive free breakfast and lunch. Economic opportunity was elsewhere.

“The young people, we find, when they do find jobs, it’s not here.”  

“The young people, we find, when they do find jobs, it’s not here,” Duncan said.

Duncan, who is an area native, says as coal jobs continue to dwindle, access to new technology and programs gives kids the chance to see the opportunities outside the area in a way they haven’t been able to before.

One of the new programs Mingo County is leveraging is a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab. Through a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the CREATE Lab is expanding its Arts and Bots program into all Mingo County middle schools as well as Springdale Junior-Senior High School in Pennsylvania. Arts and Bots lets students build and program their own robots using a mix of robotic components, a visual programming tool, and traditional craft materials.

“It’s tough to show the kids, ‘Hey, you’re going to use this somewhere,’ when they’ve never seen that job,” Duncan says of making STEM skills seem applicable. “That’s why we’ve been pulling on the CREATE Lab and our other partners, because we want the kids to see what else is going on outside of this area.”

Geographic isolation, over mountains and sometimes even roads in need of repair, makes it harder for rural kids to get exposure to the types of careers Pittsburgh kids might see. But isolation and distance also make it tougher for teachers to be exposed to learning innovations.

One of the main resources for rural teachers is Marshall University’s June Harless Center for Rural Educational Research and Development, which provides a myriad of unique professional development opportunities. It’s also one of the CREATE Lab’s satellite locations, meaning it helps expand the lab’s projects into rural places.

Photo courtesy of Carrie-Meghan Quick-Blanco

“That technology from Pittsburgh is here in the coal fields of West Virginia, thanks to the funding that we’ve gotten so far. Otherwise, teachers would have never had the chance to be exposed to these things,” says Carrie-Meghan Quick-Blanco, a language and international studies specialist and CREATE Lab’s point person at the Harless Center. She recalls an Arts and Bots workshop where a teacher who was intimidated enough by technology that she barely used email ended up building and programming an elaborate robot because the equipment is so hands-on.

The Center for Arts and Education at West Liberty University provides rural teachers support to help them incorporate the arts into different disciplines.  The center also partners with the Mattress Factory and the City Theatre to offer professional development and cover the expenses for field trips to their locations. However, those trips can take hours out of a school day, which is part of the motivation for also placing teaching artists in classrooms.

“I think it’s important to go to the schools and to the teachers as well as them coming to one of our partners or us,” says Lou Karas, director of Center for Arts and Education. “That’s really important when you’re talking about working in smaller, rural communities. You have to go both ways.”

Lynne Schrum, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at West Virginia University (WVU), also sees the importance of ensuring rural educators don’t have to travel hours to connect with high-quality resources. She has  developed a new program at WVU where education students return to their home county to student teach in their last year and submit their coursework electronically.

“It’s really important because some rural areas have trouble getting people to move there to be teachers, or speech pathologists, or counselors, because they don’t have roots there,” Schrum says. “So what we want to do is keep people in their home communities, doing as little up here in Morgantown as necessary, in order to have sustainable jobs and quality educators.”

It’s a prime example of how technology can bridge gaps across geography in a way that was never possible before. And Schrum adds these links are especially crucial for kids living in rural communities. It can open a whole new world for them.

“In a lot of rural West Virginia, people don’t have the possibility of seeing and visiting things, or exploring things in person that people in the city might have,” says Schrum. “But they can do all those things online. They can virtually see and experience things that were never possible before.”

At one workshop a teacher who was intimidated enough by technology that she barely used email ended up building and programming an elaborate robot.

Of course, to virtually see and learn, students need access to high speed internet, another hurdle for many rural families. Only 59 percent of West Virginia households subscribe to broadband service, according to a 2011 report by the Department of Commerce. Comparatively, the national average is 68 percent. Therefore, although every public school in the state is now equipped with broadband internet, digital learning can’t really live up to its potential if students lack high speed internet to continue with homework and projects at home.

“They’re going to an environment that’s digital, but they can’t necessarily extrapolate that if they go home and they don’t have access,” says John Ross, an EdTech consultant, researcher, and author who has lived and worked in rural districts. “It’s not just typing up a Word document, it’s having access to rich media, to simulations, to animations, to pulling down real time data, to communication and collaboration.”

Mike Green, vice president of the West Virginia Board of Education and head of its technology committee, sees expanding high-speed internet access into more rural homes as a top priority in making learning a seamless experience.

“The ultimate goal is to provide sufficient, broadband internet access to our children regardless of whether they’re in a brick-and-mortar school or they’re in their home or local library. The goal is to be able to provide 24-hour learning in the state,” Green says. He added that there are a number of possible long-term approaches to increasing access, including potentially partnering with local service providers or foundations to offer subsidies.

Plus, Schrum says being connected helps students see value in further education.

“I think that sometimes in rural counties, the idea of going to college doesn’t seem viable on multiple levels, emotionally, financially, purposefully,” says Schrum. “But as more and more jobs traditionally in rural areas disappear, like coal mining jobs for example, then we have to prepare those people for new careers that will allow them a full measure of a real quality life.”

Top photo/Jimmy Emerson