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Federal Funds Help 5th-Graders Explore New Territory

Technology: Grant is used for equipment that will give students in three county communities access to an education program on the Internet.


OAK VIEW — Thanks to a federal grant, some fifth-graders began their studies of the Channel Islands this fall with a new learning tool--the Internet.

"They're learning that there are new ways of learning and communicating," said Joan Archer, their teacher at Oak View-Arnaz Elementary School, where the 32 youngsters can log on to learn about the islands' history and geography.

Oak View is one of three Ventura County communities that will benefit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service--a pilot project that funds education programs around the country. The county was granted $346,700 of the $16 million doled out nationwide this fiscal year.

The education portion of the grant is earmarked to buy equipment and provide teacher training.

Besides the long-distance learning curriculum like the one set up in Archer's classroom, the grant funds a telemedicine project that allows health-care providers in rural communities to connect with major medical centers and specialists.

In addition to Oak View, Sespe and Piru will benefit from the federal money beginning in January, when their programs are expected to be up and running. Eligibility criteria include the size of the community and per-capita income statistics.

Students get lessons through the Internet by logging on to a site called Camp Internet. The RAIN Network, a nonprofit group that provides network infrastructure and education curriculum for schools, runs the site.

The group secured the funds from the USDA and administers the programs to nine communities in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

Since Archer's students began using the Internet-capable computer--the first of its kind at the school--she has seen a change in attitude.

But the fifth-grade teacher concedes it's too early to tell what effect the new learning techniques will have.

"I do see that my students are highly motivated to search for answers electronically," she said.

The possibilities for learning expand beyond simply navigating Web sites to include live chats with educators and government officials.

Archer believes that all students should learn beyond the walls of their classrooms. Her fifth-graders can access Camp Internet at home, via software available through the program, or from the library.

"The electronic age offers them such advanced opportunities for learning in a different way," Archer said. "And we can take this out of the classroom. There is so much more to learn outside the classroom."

Those walls were broken last week when the youngsters shot off questions to the executive director of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, learning about the history of the Chumash in their area.

"We can be in touch at a keyboard and get some one-on-one answers," Archer said. "That's what I think the amazing part of this is."

Bringing people together is the aim of the program, said Timothy Tyndall, executive director and founder of the Santa Barbara-based RAIN Network.

"It starts working as a tool to reweave the fabric of the community, especially in rural communities," Tyndall said.

Advocates of the program, now in its third year, say that it does more than just teach kids to be computer savvy. It gives the whole community a chance to get involved, through such things as chat room discussions or the telemedicine component.

Students and community members recently got involved in a live chat with each other, with participants logging in from the school, the library and even home. And since the program has begun, Archer said, several parents have asked her how they can connect to the Internet.

Because rural areas often have limited access to modern technology, the USDA has stepped in to raise the bar on educating students there.

"Most remote areas just don't have some of the services that we have in urban areas," said Jim McIntire, rural development manager for the USDA. "This will help them bridge the gap."

The USDA may seem like an odd source for education funding, but officials say the federal agency has an incentive to keep rural areas in step with modern technology. They want to keep their residents learning in the area where they live and work.

And for the most part, this is the only chance many rural areas have at installing state-of-the-art equipment, officials say.

"It's a matter of economics in a lot of cases," McIntire said. "You don't have a lot of people in those communities and therefore certain things won't be possible to deliver without the assistance of someone else."

Without the federal funding, the school would still lack any Internet capability, said Oak View-Arnaz Principal Larry Hardesty.

"This is magic to me, the fact that the kids can go online and talk to people," he said.

Hardesty would like every student in the 20 classrooms at his school to have Internet access, but the reality is that his school can't foot the bill just yet.

"We're not where we want to be, but we're moving," he said. "And we want to improve our technology every year."

The pilot program in Archer's classroom is giving Hardesty an idea of what to expect when all students can connect to the Internet.

The telemedicine project established with funds from the grant is designed to give residents in rural areas increased access to medical advice. In Oak View, it is being run at the Oak View Family Practice Clinic.

Through this part of the program, a medical specialist hundreds of miles away can conceivably use video equipment to examine a patient living in a rural area.

After her fifth-graders have studied the Channel Islands through the Internet, Archer expects them to be more ready than ever for the annual trip the class takes to Catalina next spring.

But for now, she will continue her Internet-based lesson plans, taking her students outside their classroom each morning.

"I think we're at a real edge here," she said. "It's bringing opportunities to them that I don't think they would otherwise have had."

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