Bridging the digital divide: Rural Livingston schools to use teleconferencing to expand student opportunities


SPRINGFIELD — At the most rural schools in Livingston Parish, principals have to make hard choices about what classes they can offer with the limited number of teachers they can attract and afford 

At French Settlement Junior High, for example, there is a keyboarding teacher but no Spanish instructor. That means students use an online Rosetta Stone program that gives them some exposure to the language, Principal Lee Hawkins said, but no credit they can count towards high school and college requirements.

"We don't have as many (offerings) as surrounding schools, just based on faculty," Hawkins said. 

Hawkins is optimistic a new distance learning project in lower Livingston Parish will enable him offer more diverse classes to the kids — while staying within his budget.

The Livingston Parish School Board has received a $477,000 grant from the U.S Department of Agriculture's Office of Rural Development to purchase videoconferencing equipment that will connect the six schools in French Settlement, Springfield, Maurepas and Frost.

The equipment will be used to share teachers among the schools and offer classes not currently available, school officials said.

"It just opens the door to so many opportunities," Hawkins said. 

The project is the brainchild of Janet Blankenship, who teaches digital media at the three high schools in District 8. Blankenship, a former TV news editor, teaches video production by way of a daily morning newscast that the kids report, tape and edit with a program called AVID.

Blankenship applied for the grant last year as part of an effort to give more opportunities to the kids she teaches.

"We want our kids to be prepared and have the best chance to make it out there," she said.

The nationally competitive grant program funds rural schools and hospitals to implement distance learning and telemedicine.

"We help bridge the digital divide and ensure our rural residents, students and businesses have access to tech," said Carrie Castille, state director for USDA Rural Development. 

In its application, Livingston Parish Schools explained that the lower Livingston schools host primarily economically disadvantaged students — some 75 percent of the 2,500 kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

A distance learning program would allow the schools to efficiently increase the number of course offerings at a time the school district is struggling to recover from the debilitating flood of 2016, the grant application says.

Blankenship explained that due to the location of the schools, kids would have a hard time traveling to a community college or career center. 

The funding will be used to place videoconferencing equipment called polycoms in each of the schools. French Settlement High School will act as the hub for the technology. 

School Board member Jim Richardson said an initial project is to connect middle school classes in Frost and Springfield. Springfield has a Spanish teacher, while Frost does not. Frost has a keyboarding teacher, which Springfield does not. 

"Each one of them will be the facilitator to the other," Richardson said. "And these kids will be able to test out of Spanish 1 before high school."

Richardson is hoping to also use the video cameras for collaboration among teachers at the various schools, where there may be just two teachers assigned to a particular grade level and students may have the same teacher multiple years in a row.

"My vision is we can get some of the best teachers in our district to do professional development, and they won't have to drive 40 miles to do it," he said.

Blankenship said each school will have about three polycoms that can be moved among classrooms. Richardson said he plans to hire an additional teacher to facilitate lessons and technology.

The grant involves a $245,000 match, but Richardson said he has already spent most of that money on existing conferencing equipment that counts for the program.

Blankenship said students in recorded classes would have added benefits. They could log in and watch the lesson if they are out of town on a sports trip or from home if they are sick. Also, kids who viewed a lesson but are still confused can watch it again from home.

Blankenship has been using this technology to teach digital media lessons via video from French Settlement High School to Maurepas School. 

She said the lessons have translated well over the camera and the programs have fostered new relationships among students at the otherwise isolated schools. 

School officials say the tools could also be used to expand availability of advanced science courses and ACT preparation.

Blankenship and Richardson said the biggest challenge implementing the program will be getting the right people involved.

Blankenship said the technology can also be used to take kids on "virtual field trips" of other countries and of places like NASA headquarters. 

Many of her students have little idea what they want to achieve after high school, she said, and these kinds of virtual experiences could give them a taste of the world beyond their small communities. 

Livingston Parish Schools Superintendent Rick Wentzel is excited about the program and said he could see the program expanding to include schools in other areas. 

"There may be a class that's offered only at Denham Springs High School, because they’re so large and have a lot more staff," he said. “We could be able to offer those maybe parish-wide through a digital media platform.”

By Caroline Grueskin