Minnesota Leads the Way in Rural Schools Innovation

March 9, 2012 - 2 Comments

If you caught Secretary Arne Duncan on the Jon Stewart show back on February 16th, the Secretary reiterated an education theme that has been common over the years for the Obama administration. When pressed by Stewart on how the U.S. Department of Education can help drive innovation in our schools, Duncan answered, the real creative breakthroughs “…need to spring from the local district, superintendents & principals themselves … and not the Washington bureaucracy.”

Enter Itasca Schools — in the very rural outstretches of northeast Minnesota. It’s another example, along with Mooresville Schools in North Carolina, of how local schools and school districts are doing exactly that.

Today of the 13,925 K-12 school districts in the U.S., approximately 70% of them are classified as “town” or “rural” by the National Center for Statistics.  Yet for many of these districts, the new economic realities of the past three years have weighed more heavily on them than city or suburban areas. The rising cost of fuel, the flight of companies from rural to urban, rising unemployment in the 20-25% range, dwindling school budgets, dropping enrollment and the subsequent move of young adults away from their rural homes toward city-based areas of economic opportunities are all providing significant challenges for these remote towns and educators.

Years ago, Itasca Schools faced these challenges head on. They looked at the future, and it wasn’t pretty. They gathered up and made the call to unite – to bring together seven different school districts and community colleges – and unify through one consortium. They called it the “Itasca Area Schools Collaborative”, or IASC. Today IASC is a leading example of new ways of looking at driving student engagement and creating open education access for students in rural towns and districts.

The leaders pulled together and reduced repetitive costs, simplified administration and teaching, and leveraged newly available technologies to realize their dream. Today IASC has implemented wireless, switching, video and collaboration technologies from Cisco – and they are realizing the benefits and impact for student outcomes.

Take a drive down a long, remote Minnesota state highway, and pull into Northland High School in the town of Remer — enrollment 430. Inside the 1960’s brick & mortar school building and down the classic linoleum hallway is one of three new state-of-the-art TelePresence room systems from Cisco. This immersive video capability has allowed the schools, located across 3500 square miles of remote terrain, to offer classes to multiple locations with scarce teachers: Spanish and Ojibwe (a nearly extinct First Nation tongue) language courses are now taught through this immersive technology, as are many other subjects.

The TelePresence class sessions are sold out all day, and have become so popular they have forced schools to align their bells and bus schedules. The kids love the chance to connect through video, and the teachers enjoy the way the technology engages kids in learning.

No one from the state of Minnesota mandated these changes, nor coerced the far-flung districts into uniting as one. According to Matt Grose, superintendent of ISD 317 in Deer River, Minnesota: “We, all of us, realized we couldn’t afford to continue with business as usual. We needed to work together in one cooperative to survive. We all focused on what’s better for the kids. And Cisco technology made it possible.”

With the U.S. economy still in recovery mode, few prospects exist for an influx of funding dollars for education in Minnesota. But by forging partnerships that stretch across vast regions, school administrators have found the way to navigate through turbulent waters and ensure best-possible outcomes for all students in the state.

“It’s frustrating for me that because of funding, we can’t offer chemistry class, which in my world is pretty basic,” says Barb Kalmi, a member of the Nashwauk/Keewatin ISD 319 school board. “Through IASC and the kinds of technologies that Cisco provides, such as TelePresence, now we can provide those opportunities to every student. Instead of having them go to another district to get their education, now we can keep them here. We can give the students what they need.”

For Secretary Duncan — an accomplished basketball player, and for rural schools everywhere, IASC is a buzzer-beater.

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  1. It took about a year for the collaborative, working with Cisco, to develop their on VSEM (Vision, Strategy, Execution, Metrics), and in that year, they did smaller network upgrades and prepared for what was to come. By the end of that year they had all seven school districts and the local community college singing from the same song sheet. This took a LOT of commitment on the part of the superintendents to work together and stay firm on their direction.

  2. I wonder how long it took to get everybody on board?