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Power of Internet Highlighted for Rural Schools

Broadband access is a critical issue for rural schools, a fact recently underscored by a state schools superintendent and a new contest.

James Phares, the West Virginia schools superintendent, believes broadband is no longer a luxury; he thinks it's a "lifeline" for students and their success.

Phares wrote a guest column for West Virginia Illustrated about the importance of broadband infrastructure improvements in a state such as West Virginia, where geography can limit Internet access.

More than half of West Virginia schools are in rural areas, and more than a third of the state's students attend rural schools, according to the Rural School and Community Trust.

He described the state's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, which was created with $126 million in federal stimulus money to provide or improve access in underserved areas.

It's good for schools that lack the bandwidth to allow multiple students to use the Internet at the same time or can't provide virtual learning courses, he wrote.

"Students are on the verge of having broadband access to the same computer-based tools as any other student in the country, or even the world," he wrote. "And that's a game changer for West Virginia."

Expanding broadband has increased use of the state's Virtual School, which provides online courses. He cited rural McDowell County as an example of a place using those. Students in its four geometry classes didn't have a teacher, and the virtual school provided online courses and webinars to them, he said.

McDowell County also is the site of the high-profile Reconnecting McDowell project, an American Federation of Teachers-led public-private partnership that aims to turnaround the low-achieving school system.

In other news, a new contest targeting rural schools hopes to show the power of broadband and give students college- and career-ready skills.

The Connected Community Contest is a nationwide competition sponsored by a nonprofit, the Foundation for Rural Service, and a company that provides digital content to schools, Discovery Education. The winner will receive a $2,500 grant for classroom technology.

The contest is open to 4th through 12th grade classes in rural communities which have 50,000 residents or less. Students will receive access to Discovery Education's digital resources to research a rural community from anywhere in the world, and students will create an at least one-minute video that shows the similarities and differences between their communities.

"Rural schools are increasingly feeling pressure to keep pace with their urban counterparts, which traditionally have had better access to learning technology and high-speed broadband," said Elizabeth Crocker, executive director of the Foundation for Rural Service, in a statement. "This contest serves as another way to highlight the unique challenges rural communities face in providing cutting-edge technologies to their students and provides an opportunity for us to reward the innovations that those challenges have spurred."

The deadline to enter is March 15, and the winner will be announced in April.

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