Remote school districts have some unique challenges, especially when it comes to technology. That’s something that Damon Hargraves, the director of federal programs for the Kodiak Island Borough school district, located on an island off the coast of Alaska, knows all too well. The district has about 2,200 students spread among four villages.
Internet connectivity and recruiting staff are big challenges. And so is trying to coordinate and learn from neighboring districts. But the district has been able to find creative ways to put technology to good use, including to create a welding certification program that relies heavily on distance learning.
Education Week chatted with Hargraves to talk about his work. What follows is an edited transcript.
Do most students in your district have internet connectivity at home? How does that affect teachers’ ability to assign certain kinds of homework?
Students who live in the district’s main hub, the city of Kodiak, tend to have internet at home, even if it’s just on their phones, Hargraves said. That’s thanks in part to the fiber optics infrastructure on the island. At Kodiak High School, “it’s very easy for a teacher to give a homework assignment, say, ‘read this article in the New York Times’ and the student could access that and it’s no big deal,” Hargraves said. “In our rural schools, you couldn’t give that same assignment because many of our kids don’t have internet at home and the cellphone coverage is very, very slow and spotty at best.”
Does that lack of connectivity impede teaching and learning?
It can. “What it really means is it limits your options. As a teacher, you want to do this really, really cool thing. You’re hearing about others who are doing this really, really cool thing through PBS kids or the Smithsonian website. And kids just can’t access that content at home. We just work our way around it.”
What are you doing to prepare students for the workforce?
Hargraves is proud of the district’s ‘distance welding’ class. “This course is a good example of how we’ve been able to overcome some of our limitations,” he said. It’s been hard to find skilled welders—let alone welding teachers to offer the course in small sites, where only ten kids may be interested in the program. So the district has put out a broad net, Hargraves said.
“What we have done is we’ve been able to hire people from the community to come in to school even if they don’t have welding expertise, if they’re interested in learning right alongside the kids and if they can help us ensure safety at the local site,”
Then a distance welding teacher in the community’s largest hub, Kodiak City, can work with them on getting the skills they need to get different welding certifications. “So the model is work with local people in the village sites, have the expertise here in Kodiak City. Then, once or twice a year, we fly the kids into Kodiak High School and they are able to take their welding certificate test and get certified in different kinds of welding, Hargraves said.
And students with a welding certification will qualify for plenty of jobs in Kodiak. “It’s something that’s needed here. We have all of our boats. We have a massive fishing industry,” Hargraves said.
The district also has an auto-shop and has plans to start offering cosmetology certifications.
This interview is part of a series of Q&As with education technology district leaders. Got a story to tell about your district? Want to participate? Email email@example.com.
A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2020 edition of Education Week as Troubleshooting Tech Realities in Rural Schools