In Illinois, One Hopeful Applicant Waits Amid Long Odds
William F. Schehl, one of the hopefuls in the running for Star Schools support, is confident that establishing a local instructional-television network will enhance education for a coalition of rural Illinois school districts.
"There's teacher-training potential, there's junior-college potential, there's unlimited potential because you have this two-way interaction between the teacher and the student,'' said Mr. Schehl, superintendent of the 700-student Cambridge Community Unit 227 school district. "It's a little more expensive, but we think it's worth it.''
Yet as excited as he is about the promise of interactive "distance learning'' to broadcast advanced language courses and teacher-training classes to schools that otherwise would be too small to support them, Mr. Schehl says he is not very optimistic that the "cluster'' of schools and junior colleges in Henry County would be awarded one of the first Star Schools grants.
Problem of Scale
His view is shared by some observers of the developing technology, who say that small-scale innovators may be squeezed out of the competition this year by large telecommunications partnerships vying for federal grants of as much as $10 million.
Partnerships "have to be fairly sizable to qualify'' for grants from the $19.1-million pool of Star Schools money, said Keith R. Krueger, director of the Washington office of Tele-Systems Inc., a consulting firm that is assisting the Henry County cluster and similar coalitions across the country to plan telecommunications networks.
"Right now, as it stands, it clearly gives a priority to multistate, then state, networks,'' he added.
When the deadline for Star Schools applications closes this week, the Henry County cluster's grant request is likely to be one of several hundred proposals, only a few of which are expected to win support.
"What some of us are hoping is that funding for this Star Schools program will go on,'' Mr. Schehl said. "There's always a possiblity of applying a second and third year.''
Many small partnerships also may have been forced to abstain from the initial competition because they were unable to put together a proposal that met program guidelines in the short time between an April briefing for prospective applicants and the deadline, according to Brad Windschill, director of the East Central Minnesota Educational Cable Cooperative.
"The timeline is so tight, I don't see how you can do it,'' he said.
Mr. Windschill said his organization considered applying for a grant but rejected the idea because "in my opinion, it appears that the scope of the legislation is so grandiose that it would become ineffective as a teaching tool.''
The Minnesota cooperative, which was established during the 1985-86 school year, offers courses to seven local school districts, as well as through a local private television company, and prefers the control over curriculum permitted by a smaller system.
"What we're doing is much more interactive, much more effective'' than the systems envisioned by Star Schools, he argued.
But Mr. Schehl remains hopeful that what the Henry County cluster lacks in size and prestige it will make up for in originality. "The interest is in what they consider new and innovative use of technology, and some of these programs are not going to be as innovative as others,'' he said.
'Keep on Plodding Along'
He also said a feasibility study estimates the cost of setting up one classroom for interactive communication at $12,000, and the cost of getting a school into operation at about $50,000, though "some will be less because they've already got [microwave] towers.''
If its grant application fails, he said, the cluster may have to depend on donations from local industry to get the project off the ground.
"I don't think it 's going to die,'' he said. "It's going to be there. What we anticipate is that we are just going to keep plodding along.''--PW