Livingston Parish to use distance learning technology to connect students to greater opportunities


FRENCH SETTLEMENT — Schools in the southernmost part of Livingston Parish are among the district’s smaller, more rural campuses. That fact often presents those schools with challenges of offering students greater access to advanced coursework and diverse electives.

That could be changing this school year, thanks to the district’s participation in a USDA grant program to incorporate distance learning curriculum opportunities at those campuses.

“The distance learning program helps rural communities use the unique capabilities of telecommunications to connect to each other and to the world, overcoming the effects of remoteness and low population density. The program electronically links teachers in one area to students in another,” said Distance Learning Program Director Janet Blakenship.

She said research shows that distance learning can be as effective as classroom learning in terms of student performance. It offers the opportunity for enhanced curriculum and advanced classes, as well as for students to participate in low-enrollment, high-cost classes such as physics, anatomy, chemistry, music theory or calculus.

Those schools participating in the distance learning program are Springfield High, Springfield Middle, Springfield Elementary, French Settlement High, French Settlement Elementary, Maurepas and Frost.

The USDA grant will pay for most of the program’s costs, which includes funds for technology and the system’s infrastructure.

Superintendent Rick Wentzel has taken on the task of introducing the program to area principals and school administrators by leading demonstration workshops and learning sessions at those schools.

He demonstrated how the technology will allow teachers to include curriculum-based virtual field trips in their instruction, including visits to museums, planetariums, zoos and even space. Classes can use the technology to collaborate with other schools and businesses, including team teaching with different schools.

Wentzel said he anticipates debates with other classes or schools, project sharing and virtual discussions with renowned authors, scientists and other professionals.

“This technology opens up a world of opportunities that can empower our teachers and our students. Lessons and class discussions can become more interactive and more relevant,” Wentzel said.

“Our students can be exposed to a variety of potential career paths, and our teachers can provide tailored learning opportunities depending on each student’s learning style or interests,” he said.

In addition to the academic benefits, distance technology also has economic benefits.

Distance learning makes school size no longer a factor in determining the scope or breadth of curriculum offered. Schools of any size can offer a virtually unlimited curriculum without incurring the costs of hiring additional teachers. Savings increase even more if schools participate in distance learning consortia to share master teachers, personnel and technology costs.

“Small schools can offer their students tremendous advantages over large campuses, but they traditionally lack in offering greater access to advanced classes and more diverse electives. This program helps to put all schools on a more even playing field in that arena, and, in many ways, gives the advantage back to small schools,” Wentzel said.

“With that said, it is my hope that eventually we can connect all our schools in the parish, offering ‘across the board’ opportunities to all,” he added.

Officials with the USDA have released national statistics that show rural students are roughly 10 percent less likely than nonrural peers to attend college, are less likely to enroll in four-year colleges, and are more likely to under match — not attend colleges with high academic standards. The research identified funding disparities, difficulty procuring resources in geographically isolated areas (e.g. broadband internet), and difficulty retaining effective educators as factors.

The research also noted the challenges of preparing rural students for college and career, and stressed the importance of expanding access to both dual enrollment coursework (college courses open to high school students that allow them to earn college credit during high school) and Advanced Placement coursework. Evidence from both rural and nonrural districts suggests that opportunities to earn college credit in high school positively impact students’ likelihood of attending, succeeding in and graduating from a postsecondary institution.