The rural, slow-paced lifestyle of the Eastern Shore of Virginia--a jagged peninsula set off by the Chesapeake Bay--helps distinguish the region from the more populous parts of the state.
But like other areas of Virginia, the two school districts that occupy this impoverished stretch of shoreland also need special education teachers.
State officials believe they have found a high-tech remedy to ease the problem for the Eastern Shore’s isolated communities, where fishing and farming are the main industries.
The state education department last spring sought to remedy theirs and other districts’ shortages by awarding a two-year, $1.2 million grant to Old Dominion University. In turn, the public university provides distance-learning classes for teachers and other professionals to earn their certification in special education.
Distance learning overcomes a large hurdle for ambitious residents of the state’s many rural areas--finding accessible classes. The Eastern Shore, for instance, has only one higher education institution, a two-year community college here in Melfa. From this tiny community, at the midway point of the peninsula’s only thoroughfare, teachers would have to drive more than three hours, and pay $20 in tolls, to cross the bay to the Old Dominion campus, located in Norfolk.
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For the past several years, Old Dominion has been promoting distance learning through its so-called Teletechnet program, which transmits classes by satellite to other sites. The university worked with school districts to devise a series of nine special education courses required for state certification that could be broadcast by satellite television to the state’s 31 community colleges.
Most of the classes broadcast to the outlying community colleges allow students to interact with their on-screen professors by radio, although a few have received two-way video systems. Each classroom also has a site director, employed by Old Dominion, to oversee coursework and exams. And districts must provide a more experienced teacher to mentor each student and oversee evaluations.
“We wanted something that was a proven program,” said Sandra Aldrich, an education specialist with the state department. Old Dominion was chosen to receive the grant partly because “it does not differentiate from its on-campus program.”
Virginia in recent years has seen an oversupply of elementary teachers but a shortage in nearly all special education specialties, according to Ms. Aldrich.
The availability of the distance-learning classes at Eastern Shore Community College, along with the financial assistance, has enabled some aspiring teachers to achieve what otherwise would have been unlikely. They pay $100 of the $550 tuition for each class, with the grant picking up the remaining amount.
S. Dawn Goldstine, the superintendent of the 2,400-student Northampton County district on the Eastern Shore, said the program has greatly helped the district recruit and train much-needed special education teachers already living in the communities.
“It’s difficult for us, at best, to attract quality teachers to an isolated location like this,” she said. In addition to the region’s lifestyle and lack of amenities, district salaries fall below the state average, making it harder to compete for new graduates, she added.
‘Exact Same Courses’
Elaine M. Johnson, a 28-year-old native of the Eastern Shore, started as a substitute teacher, but she was later hired as an aide to special education students in Northampton County. She and her mother, Bonnie M. Trower, 53, a former real estate agent and also a longtime resident, began taking Teletechnet classes to earn their teaching certificates. Now, the pair are enrolled in the special education grant program to earn their master’s degrees.
“Our students are taking the exact same courses, same exams, all the same requirements, but are simply using technology to allow them to do so,” said Old Dominion President James Koch.
Although having television cameras and computer monitors in their classrooms took some getting used to, several Old Dominion’s special education professors said they now have a different view of teaching and learning. “The technology has helped us step out of the box,” said Jane Hager, an associate dean for special education.
A version of this article appeared in the March 24, 1999 edition of Education Week as Prospective Teachers in Rural Areas Tune In to Satellite Classes