Despite the same landscape and weather challenges faced by many areas of West Virginia, in 2015, the schools in Owsley County, in the coalfield region of eastern Kentucky, did not lose any days of school to snow or inclement weather.
In that same year, we were able to dramatically increase the number of students graduating from high school with an associate’s degree, or that were college- or career-ready.
What made these remarkable improvements possible was widespread access to high-speed Internet.
Thanks to a federal investment in broadband infrastructure a few years ago, and a real spirit of innovation and determination at the local level, 90 percent of households in our region have access to high-speed Internet.
In terms of our education outcomes, installing up-to-date Internet infrastructure was a game-changer for our county.
West Virginia, that opportunity is now yours.
In 2010, Owsley County school district, which covers a rural population of about 4,500 people, was one of two school districts in Kentucky selected for a pilot program to use nontraditional instruction methods to improve educational outcomes.
The cornerstone of that program is an innovative, cutting-edge education platform called Blackboard, which uses digital content, online learning and class management systems to provide both students and teachers with a 24/7/365 learning environment.
Five years later, and that program has expanded to 44 districts across the state.
The impact that providing an effective online learning environment has had on our students has been remarkable. College- and career-readiness numbers have seen tremendous growth in the past three years for the district.
Seven percent of Owsley County’s graduates were recognized as being college- or career-ready in 2010. This year, 79.4 percent of graduates were college- or career-ready.
There were 10 days during the past school year when I had to cancel classes because of bad weather. But, rather than having to tack those days of learning on to the end of the year, disrupting vacation plans and parents’ work schedules, thanks to Blackboard, we were able to keep students engaged with nontraditional lessons, help them complete assignments and provide direct teacher support. The teachers were in their homes, teaching, and the students were in their homes, learning.
(And, for those of you wondering whether our students really pay attention during nontraditional online lessons, this past school year, 92 percent of students completed the assignments given by teachers on those snow days. That’s an excellent return, even when teachers are in the room with their students.)
Additionally, this technology has made it easier for students to take dual-credit classes at local colleges. Rather than losing half a day to travel, now students can integrate college-level classes into their Blackboard learning environment. As a result, we now have students graduating from high school here with associate’s degrees.
We’re getting our kids ready for college, and ready for the workplace. That’s a competitive advantage for our students and for the state of Kentucky.
None of this would have been possible if not for the fact that 90 percent of households in our region have access to high-speed Internet.
Owsley County is one of the poorest in America. It is rural, sparse and pocketed by mountains. If we can build this infrastructure here, what is stopping other rural communities from doing the same?
I believe providing Internet infrastructure, and all the opportunities that come with that, could well be one of the most transformative events that happens for Appalachia.
Tim Bobrowski is the superintendent of the Owsley County School District, in Eastern Kentucky.
A great argument from Tim Bobrowski, the superintendent of the Owsley County School District, in Eastern Kentucky, on the application of broadband to education.