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No Child Left in the Cold

Schools in rural Alaska are using Internet video links to bridge the vast distances between students and scarce teachers.

November 11, 2004|Chris Gaither | Times Staff Writer

TUNUNAK, Alaska — When the plump seals, walruses and occasional beluga whale arrive in the frigid waters off this Bering Sea village, many plastic chairs in the Paul T. Albert Memorial School sit empty. But on a recent morning, with the big hunt still months away, five Yupik Eskimos were learning geometry.

"Who can name a pair of parallel planes?" asked teacher Kim Abolafia as she motioned toward a geometric shape labeled with an alphabet soup of letters.

Gerald Agimuk, a 17-year-old in Adidas sneakers and baggy black pants, shifted in his seat and answered. "Points D-E-A and C-F-B."

"OK, good," Abolafia said. "Good job."

The scene here in Tununak seems as commonplace as the spitballs shot by restless students everywhere. But even for these teenage hunters, Abolafia was well out of projectile range -- in an office in Bethel, 120 miles away.

To get there, the village's five algebra and six geometry students would have to hop on an all-terrain vehicle or a snowmobile, head to the local gravel airstrip, then board a small plane.

Now, there's no need. Abolafia broadcasts math lessons via the Internet five days a week to 17 villages across the Kuskokwim-Yukon Delta, where 3,800 students from kindergarten through 12th grade are scattered across a school district the size of West Virginia.

Internet videoconferencing is helping to bridge the tremendous distances between students and the expert educators who are in short supply throughout Alaska.

Nearly all of Alaska's 54 school districts have received broadband connections in the last few years, and nine of the most rural ones are using the technology to conduct online videoconferences. Students in secluded villages can take virtual field trips on dog sleds. Administrators can train teachers in far-flung locations.

"Even in the smallest, most remote schools, you can start to provide equivalent academic rigor," said Chick Beckley, president of the Alaska Distance Learning Partnership, an organization of school districts and distance-learning providers. "It helps level the playing field by increasing education opportunities for rural students."

The technology is still unreliable. Extreme weather and technical glitches can cancel virtual classes. Some educators are scratching their heads about how best to use the equipment. And many still doubt that Internet videoconferencing can ever take the place of a well-qualified teacher in the classroom.

But the variety of ways in which the nation's emptiest state is using the technology offers a glimpse at the future of wired education.

"For years and years, distance learning was viewed as the second-best alternative," said Melody M. Thompson, director of the American Center for the Study of Distance Education at Pennsylvania State University. "But the Internet has brought more exploration of the possibilities."

With a road system the size of New Hampshire's serving a state four times as big as California, Alaskan educators have a long track record of finding creative ways to reach students. Pilots once flew lessons to the Alaskan bush and carried the completed work back to teachers. Faxes, phone conferences, educational TV broadcasts and e-mail have been tried, with varying success.

Provisions in the federal No Child Left Behind Act have made Alaska's search more urgent. By the end of the next school year, such core subjects as math and science must be taught by teachers designated as "highly qualified" -- those who hold a degree in the subject they teach or can pass a test to prove they know the material. Some rural teachers may get a reprieve but only for three years.

Meeting that requirement will be impossible in much of Alaska. Starting teachers willing to brave the isolation and bitter cold earn more than they can anywhere else in the country, but schools still lose, on average, about one-third of their faculty each year. Twenty percent of schools have three or fewer teachers. Most Alaskan teachers are generalists by necessity.

But some administrators are optimistic that they can overcome those problems with two-way videoconferencing and other high-tech strategies made possible by a federal program called E-Rate. Funded by a fee levied on U.S. phone carriers, E-Rate pays for as much as 90% of schools' telecommunications equipment and services and has brought $75 million to Alaska in the last six years.

"E-Rate really has been a miracle for our state," said Della Matthis, E-Rate coordinator for the state Department of Education and Early Development. "It has opened up so many things we never could have done otherwise."

Three years ago, the Lower Kuskokwim School District went hunting for its first full-time videoconferencing teacher. They found Abolafia, who wanted an Alaskan adventure after teaching for three years in tough neighborhood schools in Jersey City, N.J., and Jacksonville, Fla.

Neither Abolafia nor her new bosses knew what to expect.

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