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Ed-Tech Policy

‘We Just Work Our Way Around It.’ CTO Challenges in a Rural District

By Alyson Klein — January 02, 2020 4 min read
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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 coordinate and learn from neighboring districts. “We’re hundreds of miles away from the next school district. It’s difficult for us to take leads from our neighbors or get help from our neighbors,” Hargraves said.

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.

Tell me about the challenges of just getting online.

“We work with less,” Hargraves emphasized. Many districts strive to offer connections of 25 megabits per second. But in Kodiak, a lot of schools are operating on just 6 or 8 megabits per second, meaning that only one classroom at a time could stream video in some schools, he said. “We just have to juggle” he said, to make sure the classes that need to be connected at a certain time are indeed, connected.

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 infrastrucutre 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. “It’s really a question of opportunity. We’ve taught without bandwidth and without technology for a long time. 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 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.

How do you entice people to work in such a remote area?

The district looks for employees who “have an adventurous spirit. Kodiak is really an awesome place if you’re into the outdoors.” Hargraves said job fairs are not always a good source of potential staff. Instead, it’s better to connect directly with universities when looking for teachers.

And “to recruit tech folk, we’ve really gone out of our way to grow our own,” Hargraves said. “One hundred percent of the people in our tech department are from Kodiak."(That’s five employees). The district tries to pique students’ interest in tech by offering IT-related clubs in high schools.

And Hargraves and his team are willing to hire employees who have potential but might need additional training. “That’s really been the key. My advice to another [rural] district would be ‘invest in your IT department, through training,” he said. “Those people who are in investing in your community, build them up.”

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 aklein@educationweek.org.

Photos courteousy of Damon Hargraves

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.