Arizona’s rural higher education crisis

Getting wired for success in rural Arizona

For students in rural Arizona, having high-speed internet can mean the difference between going to college or not.

Something as simple as accessing a college application or taking a course online is often out of their reach. That places them at the back of the school bus in competing with their urban peers.

Two years ago, state officials vowed to do something about it. They applied for and received federal matching monies to start the Arizona Initiative for Broadband Education program.

Since then, construction has been completed or is underway to bring broadband to rural schools across the state. Over the next two years, the goal is to help schools provide high-speed internet to 282,000 students.

“This is going to enable distance learning. It will allow a kid to watch open heart surgery being performed at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, take a biology class from Arizona State University or an architectural design course from MI-JTED (Mountain Institute Joint Technical Education District) in Prescott,” said Arizona Department of Education E-Rate Controller Milan Eaton, whose office handles applications from schools wanting broadband.

“By providing high-speed internet, we’re opening these kids up to the world,” he said. “That’s what we need to do. That’s our responsibility.”

In addition to bridging the technology gap for students, small school districts that pay thousands of dollars a month for poor quality internet, will now pay only a few hundred dollars a month for high-speed service as good as “downtown Phoenix,” Eaton said.

Rural Arizona schools among most needy in nation

In Arizona where 135 out of 223 school districts are considered rural, high-speed connectivity is  a critical issue.

A few years ago, Arizona’s rural schools were ranked second in the nation for having the “highest needs,” according to Why Rural Matters, a 50-state report by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rural School and Community Trust.

A lack of broadband connectivity was cited as a major factor. While enrollment by high school students in online dual enrollment classes continued to rise, rural students in Arizona were being left behind.

With the help of Gov. Doug Ducey and former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Andy Tobin, Eaton was able to secure $11 million in state funding to use for matching funding to apply for a Federal Communications Commission grant.

The return on the state’s money has been tenfold. More than $115 million in federal funding has been awarded to Arizona to bring broadband to rural schools and libraries in all 15 counties.

The high amount awarded reflects Arizona’s extreme need. Schools must meet certain poverty guidelines to receive funding.

Equipping school buses, hot box packs

Rural students in the state, many whom are Latino, low-income or first-generation students, consistently come up short when it comes to postsecondary academic attainment, according to a report released last October by the nonprofit College Success Arizona.

To help bridge the technological divide for poor students, schools like Alta Vista High School, an alternative charter school in South Tucson, allow them to check out hot boxes so they can have internet at home, too.

In the Vail school district nearby, school buses that trek to outlying areas within the 425-square- mile district have long been equipped with wifi so students can study on the 45-minute rides to and from school.

Vail, that is largely a suburban district with a couple of rural pockets, was one of the first in the nation to provide one-on-one laptops for students. It later developed a comprehensive online lesson sharing program called Beyond Textbooks that it sells to other districts.

Technology has been the “driving force” behind the district’s high academic success, Communications Director Darcy Mentone said. To read more about how broadband is impacting Arizona schools, go to: Apache County schools get broadband.

Victoria Harker

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