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April 4, 2012

Time to get off the bus and on the computer


By Thomas O'Brien and Edward Fersch

Seventy-five years ago, use of a new technology resulted in a dramatic transformation of education in our region and in rural areas throughout the country. Until then, the one-room schoolhouse was the norm in rural places. Every back road and hollow had one; children simply walked to the one nearest their house. Each school had one teacher who taught every subject up to eighth grade. The expectation for most children was that an eighth grade education was sufficient. High School was only possible for those who lived in the villages or who could live with a family in the village during the week.

In the 1930s, new transportation technologies changed society. The automobile and its cousins meant that people could travel longer distances in less time. Educators saw the potential of this technology to transform education in rural areas; the school bus was born. Each hollow no longer needed its own school. There was now a safe way for the children from the relatively isolated farm families to travel greater distances to school each day. The one-room schoolhouses were closed and large centralized schools were built in the larger villages. Classes were organized by age and taught by a specialist in each subject. This new structure provided the students with many more educational opportunities. Student achievement soared.

Since its creation, the school bus has been the primary tool used to increase educational opportunities in rural areas. Many of the central school districts formed in the 1930's, including more than a dozen in our area, have been further consolidated. The state encourages these consolidations with funding for feasibility studies, along with increases in state aid for the newly formed district. The promise of these mergers is that the students would learn more in their new school and that the cost of their education would be reduced. Many state officials want more mergers; in fact, some have publicly stated that districts with fewer than one thousand students should be forced to consolidate.

It has been said that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But, everything is not a nail so carpenters carry a toolbox full of tools and use the correct one for each situation. Similarly, in education if we think that the only tool we have is a school bus, then every problem has to be solved with physical consolidation of school districts. But, we have other tools so we need to look at the specific circumstances in order to craft our solutions.

Many school districts in this area cover more than one hundred square miles and have fewer than five hundred students. Our school busses travel over all the back roads where the one-room schoolhouses used to be; children in some districts are on the bus for an hour. Further physical consolidation will necessarily mean more time on a school bus and less time in a classroom. Is this really the best way to provide quality educational opportunities in our area?

Today, new communication technologies are changing the world. Internet connections, video conferencing and other forms of digital technology have made it possible for us to communicate in real time with more and more people. Our generation needs to realize the potential of this technology to transform education in our time. We no longer need the school bus to bring students to the teacher; we can use this new technology to bring the teacher to the students. Teachers in one building can conduct a class containing students in many other places. Students can collaborate on projects with their peers who attend another school. People with similar interests can learn together no matter where they go to school. Rather than using a school bus to physically consolidate our school districts, we can use digital technology to cyber-consolidate them!

The requirements for cyber-consolidation are simple--high speed digital connections throughout the school buildings and video conferencing equipment. Additionally, teachers will need access to professional development courses so they can learn effective ways to teach in this new classroom. No new buildings are needed and there is no need for increased student transportation. Nevertheless, state funding is only available to districts wishing to physically consolidate. This makes no sense.

At the annual meeting of the New York State School Board Association last October, school districts across the state overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling upon the state to fund cyber-consolidation in the same way that they fund physical consolidation. We call upon the Governor, the Legislature, the Board of Regents and the State Education Department to act on this recommendation.

Seventy-five years ago, our ancestors saw a new technology as a means to increase educational opportunities for their children. Using the school bus, they created a new educational structure. Now, it's our turn. In today's digital technology, we have a tool that will allow us to re-design the educational structure of our time. Let's use it to create a system that will use our resources more efficiently, one that will give students access to many more educational opportunities and better prepare them to be productive citizens in the twenty-first century.

Thomas O'Brien is the superintendent of Roxbury Central School.

Edward Fersch is the Roxbury Central School District Board of Education president.

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