News & Features

Narrowing the Rural School Digital Divide

A debate over a Wi-Fi tower near Creston School brings into focus a broader issue of rural schools keeping pace with technological progress

In an effort to broaden students’ horizons beyond their rural districts and forge a connection with outside expertise, Creston School schedules regular Skype sessions with professionals and academics, an exciting opportunity for the kids. It’s a seemingly straightforward way to offer new angles on traditional education — that is, until the internet freezes up in the middle of the conversation.

To guard against this happening, school officials ask all other students and personnel to stay off the web during the Skype talks, which has the undesirable consequence of taking away access for kids and teachers not participating in the online conferences.

With the school’s roughly 20 megabits per second (Mbps) internet download speed, even routine operations are mired in uncertainty. In towns, households typically have far faster speeds, let alone schools and businesses, which are larger operations that require even more robust connections. In 2017, the average fixed broadband download speed in the U.S. was 64.17 Mbps, and the standard goal for a school of Creston’s size is a dedicated connection offering 100 Mbps, five times faster.

The Skype frustrations represent merely one example of various technological dilemmas facing rural schools in Montana and across the country, as they are more likely to experience location-caused poor internet service and funding-related inabilities to address the deficiencies along with other technology insufficiencies. And in an increasingly tech-dependent world, rural students face the prospects of settling for fewer opportunities than their city and town counterparts, and in some cases falling behind.

All of which provides the backdrop for a debate, often heated, currently enveloping Creston School, which has faced opposition from neighbors to its proposal to contract with MontanaSky to erect a Wi-Fi monotower that would boost speeds to 100 Mbps at the school and offer a broadband alternative for the surrounding area.

While Creston sorts through its predicament, rural schools across the state and country are confronting their own challenges in keeping up with a rapidly changing digital landscape.

Creston School. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Simply put, broadband infrastructure is often lacking in out-of-town areas, although rural telecommunication providers, led by the Montana Telecommunications Association, invested $250 million in fiber backbone infrastructure statewide from 2011 to 2016. Ample federal and state dollars have been put to use, too.

Indeed, it costs money to upgrade broadband connectivity, and schools run on tight, at times prohibitively restrictive, margins, particularly for tech-related expenses.

Rural or not, kids have to be plugged in these days, and slow internet or outdated devices present problems more troublesome than simple nuisances. The national organization Education Innovator has called slow broadband at schools “another cause of inequality.”

The concern is pronounced enough in Montana that the last Legislature almost unanimously passed a bipartisan bill creating the Broadband for Montana Schools Program, which provides state matching dollars to leverage broadband funds available through the federal E-rate program, administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company under the direction of the Federal Communications Commission, for Montana K-12 schools over a two-year period.

When Gov. Steve Bullock signed House Bill 390 into law last June, he said it would bring Montana “closer to closing the (broadband) connectivity gap in our state’s schools.”

“Providing our students with access to high-quality digital learning helps set them up for success in our increasingly digital world,” the governor said. “As a predominantly rural state, we need to work even harder to make sure that our students have the high-speed internet that they need to flourish.”

Montana Department of Commerce Director Pam Haxby-Cote added: “Reliable high-speed internet access is a critical part of growing Montana’s economy.”

“Our schools are often the center of our communities,” she continued, “and this funding will go a long way in boosting broadband access for public schools and in turn our communities.”

To operate the program, the state partners with the national nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, whose mission is to “upgrade the internet access in every public school classroom in America so that every student has the opportunity to take advantage of the promise of digital learning.” West Valley School and Deer Park School are among the recipients of the grants thus far.

But the program alone can’t address all schools’ needs in the state. And even when schools are awarded the grants, they often encounter obstacles in securing the funding due to delays and denials by the Universal Service Administrative Company, according to EducationSuperHighway, which states on its website — headlined “Red Tape is Delaying Digital Equity” — that 28 percent of selected schools nationwide have been denied funding to upgrade their networks through the E-rate application process.

One such school is Woodman Elementary School near Lolo, which was awarded funding through the initiative but well after a year still hasn’t received its fiber-optic upgrade. According to a March report by NBC Montana, the delay prompted a letter-writing campaign by the school.

One student wrote, “My class wants to be like other kids that live in the city.” Another, according to a story by WIRED, wrote, “If we had internet, we could do tests at our own school and not have to get bussed to Lolo and take tests on their computer.” Another wrote, “We as a school are behind in our education. It takes half an hour to load a document.”

A teacher told NBC Montana that the funding failure sent a message that “students in rural America have less opportunity, and really, internet should be something that brings opportunity to places like rural America.”

The property near Creston School on which the monotower is proposed. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The FCC says small schools should have speeds of 1 Mbps per student, which would mean Woodman should have 36 Mbps. The NBC report said Woodman’s is typically less than 1 percent of that, or speeds most people were accustomed to “25 years ago,” causing problems for tasks as basic as learning to write a bibliography on a website. WIRED said only three students at a time could access Google.

“Can you even imagine?” one teacher said. “Our kids go through eighth grade. By the time they leave here they go into the big schools in Missoula. Everybody sitting in a desk around them is going to be internet savvy.”

Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester wrote a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai about “unnecessary regulations” leaving some rural schools “in the dark,” but Woodman still hasn’t received its upgrade.

“We’re in the 21st century,” Tester said in March. “Our kids need to have a 21st century education if they’re going to compete in this economy that we have.”

Bullock noted at the time that thousands of students statewide were “without access to the high-speed internet they need to take advantage of digital learning.” Schools that don’t secure grants have few funding options to improve broadband connectivity and upgrade devices other than their own tight budgets or floating tech levies, passing the burden onto property taxpayers.

Dennis Parman, executive director of the Montana Rural Education Association, said while gaps remain, closing the rural school digital divide has made significant progress in recent years. The state’s matching-grant program has helped, while telecommunication cooperatives have also been a driving force. As an example, Parman noted that in the Scobey service area the local telecommunication cooperative built out fiber to all the schools.

“They just stepped up and did it,” he said. “(Rural telecommunications providers) statewide have done a fabulous job doing what they can and even stepping up beyond that.”

Parman said 40 schools in the state don’t meet the goal of 1 Mbps per student for smaller schools and 100 Mbps altogether for bigger schools. While that doesn’t mean other schools necessarily have blazing speeds, the figure illustrates how relatively few schools don’t meet the minimum criteria. He praises the EducationSuperHighway’s goal of 100 percent of schools reaching the mark, but acknowledges that “getting broadband to some of these very remote locations is very expensive.”

“For this generation,” Parman said, “broadband is a basic utility, like water, light, gas.”

There are 19 school districts in Flathead County. When you subtract Kalispell, Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Bigfork and Somers-Lakeside, the remaining 14 districts are located outside of towns and cities in rural areas, where these small independent educational facilities grapple with dilemmas unique to their location, size and demographics, which often lean toward the lower end of the income scale.

Meanwhile, Creston School has the inverse problem of its lower-income counterparts: too few of its families meet the criteria for free-and-reduced lunches, which disqualifies the school for certain technology funding, according to Principal Tami Ward.

Given that reality, Creston administrators thought they had stumbled on an ideal solution to their broadband woes with MontanaSky Networks’ proposal to foot the bill for constructing a Wi-Fi tower on land gifted to the school and also pay for the school’s internet. In return, MontanaSky would have a location for its tower and access to the area’s customer base.

Without the MontanaSky agreement, Creston School’s only other realistic alternative to upgrade broadband connectivity would likely be floating a tech levy.

“We don’t go to the taxpayers unless we absolutely need to,” Ward said. “We thought this was a good no-cost solution.”

Since the tower would provide a high-speed internet option for residents up to 10-mile radius, according to MontanaSky, Ward added: “It would benefit the whole community as well.”

A rendering of the proposed Wi-Fi tower near Creston School. Courtesy Rendering

But some neighbors have vehemently protested the tower, voicing concerns over the impacts of radiation on health, as well as the 118-foot tower’s effects on views and property values. They also felt blindsided because they weren’t notified about the tower and there was initially no public comment period.

Following the outcry, school officials delayed erecting the tower and launched a 30-day public comment period that runs through August. Ryan Bowman, CEO of MontanaSky Networks, accepted responsibility for the lack of communication, saying the company originally thought the county would send out public notices because it was a zoned area that required a variance.

But since the property was actually un-zoned, the county wasn’t legally required to notify anybody. Neither was MontanaSky, but since it involves a school — even though the land is private property gifted to the school — Bowman said he understands now he should have reached out to neighbors.

“We dropped the ball and didn’t circle back around,” Bowman said. “Not making excuses, but this is the first time we’ve dealt with doing a tower for a school, so we’re learning.”

Hana Kukla, who with her husband is one of the most vocal opponents of the tower, said she is collecting signatures for an opposition petition. She says research, particularly in other countries, points to health concerns, and she believes property values will be negatively impacted.

“But the worst thing is that they didn’t let anyone know about it,” she said, noting that her daughter has a kid at the school. “It’s kind of upsetting that even the parents at the school didn’t even know.”

Cayuse Prairie School Superintendent Amy Piazzola said her school was able to build out a fiber-optic network and implement more access points four years ago thanks to a private anonymous grant. Prior to upgrading its infrastructure, the school struggled with slow internet speeds, causing frustration and necessitating “workarounds,” such as staggering testing times, Piazzola said.

Even with the private contribution, the school has relied on the E-Rate program to cut the monthly costs of paying for internet service, in addition to procuring surplus computers from the state and grants to upgrade technology. Cayuse Prairie, which at 260 students is bigger than most of its Flathead County rural counterparts, receives $9,000 a year in technology funding from the state.

“If we wouldn’t have had outside grants, we wouldn’t be where we are right now,” Piazzola said. “The schools have to be super frugal with their money. Every year there’s always this new obstacle, and you have to figure out how you’re going to deal with it.”

The state’s surplus technology program is a critical resource for rural schools, according to Parman with the Montana Rural Education Association. Every state agency has a replacement cycle for computers, printers and other hardware, and schools have access to the technology once it’s been replaced at no cost other than picking it up. Parman recalls sending a truck with a snowmobile trailer to stock up on equipment.

“If you’re a small rural school and you can pick up 20 of the same thing, that goes a long way,” Parman said.

The Montana Rural Education Association, a nonprofit, also owns a for-profit purchasing group, Montana Cooperative Services, part of a 27-state consortium, which bids on equipment for “volume discount pricing.”

In the end, school operations are increasingly dependent on technology and adequately fast internet, not only for curriculum and coursework, but also attendance, correspondence and basic daily functions.

“When technology doesn’t work, it’s one of the most frustrating things for educators,” Piazzola with Cayuse Prairie said. “And we just seem to be relying on it more and more.”

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