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Area schools will use grant money for technology upgrades

Area schools will be getting a much needed update to their distance learning programs over the course of the next two years. CESA 10 recently completed a grant application for a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Distance Learning (DLT) grant to give the districts the funds they need to replace outdated equipment and improve the educational opportunities available to rural districts.

The grant written by CESA 10 will affect 39 rural schools in Wisconsin, including the districts of Greenwood, Loyal, Spencer and Granton. As part of the grant, the $1 million USDA grant to the schools will be combined with a $150,150 cash match by each district to provide more than $1.15 million in total funding to the districts for their distance learning programs and other projects.

“It’s hard for each individual school district to write grants,” said Greenwood district administrator Todd Felhofer. “So we were all written under this grant by grant writers at CESA 10.”

While the exact amount of funds going to each school has yet to be determined, each district is expected to receive enough funding to make improvements to their Central Wisconsin Educational Television Network (CWETN) programs, while the CESA 10 Distance Learning Project — Achieving Wisconsin Equity (AWE) part of the grant will provide access to technology instruction and mental health aid for staff and students at the districts.

According to press releases sent to each area district in October, the grant’s first priority will be to update the current equipment used by each district in their distance learning programs to create more reliable and secure classroom connections. That part of the grant will be used most extensively by Greenwood and Granton, which both have aging equipment.

In Greenwood, Felhofer said much of the technology currently used by the classrooms in their CWETN network are more than a decade old and very expensive to replace. With the grant funds, he said the needed technology upgrade will be able to improve the students’ ability to communicate and connect with their instructors over the network.

“The grant allows us to address and replace a lot of aging network interface in our CWETN network,” he said. “Our students have access to a variety of programs (through CWETN), they are good opportunities. The problem is the network has a hard time putting through. It happens on our end, cameras and two-way communication. Some of these cameras are 7-10 years old … Each district also has N-ports, devices, portable units, and polycoms that are getting old. Technology changes so quickly.”

In Spencer, the technology operating in its CWETN system isn’t quite as old as some of its neighbors, but the cost to maintain that level of newness hasn’t been cheap. Mike Endreas, the district administrator at the Spencer School District, said the school has been trying to keep pace with the changing technology used in the program and allocates funds from the regular school budget to assist with that. With the grant funds now filling in the need for funding those areas, he said the district now has some freed-up funds they can use on other needed projects around the district.

“What it will allow us to do is bring our current technology up to date,” he said. “There is a lifespan on them and we don’t want to be behind the eight ball, we want to be up to date and stay current. The money will allow us to continue to keep our distance learning equipment up to date. What’s nice about the grant is that we can now direct funds to other areas. We’re very solid in our technology areas, we can now focus on other areas.”

The Loyal School District has also been trying to keep its technology as current as it can, with their last update to the program occurring about six years ago. As they have worked to maintain their equipment, district administrator Chris Lindner said the school’s administration and school board have been discussing their options of what would be the best use of the grant’s funds.

“We have been discussing it,” he said. “We have some ideas out there, but we’re kind of going off the needs of the students and the program.”

One area of distance learning that Lindner said he would like to try to focus some of the grant’s funding on is the current application of distance learning in the regular classrooms in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the strategies they have been using so far to keep students and teachers connected, he said, have been derived from things that have already been used and proven to work in the school’s CWETN classrooms. As these strategies continue to be used in each classroom at Loyal, he said it would be useful if some of the funds could be used to improve the connections in these recently established areas of communication.

“Along the realm of distance learning, some of the most important things we have done is what we have done in the school with the returning and virtual students,” he said. “We set up our educational classrooms to simulate the CWETN program. Students get on class here, if they have questions they can go to the archives and rewatch those recordings. If the kids are sick and then feel better later, they can go to the archives and catch up on those lessons. I think its been a good thing, distance learning pushed us in that direction.”

Besides improving the area school’s distance learning capabilities to allow rural students to continue to access classes not offered at their school, the AWE portion of the grant will also be used to provide things not commonly found at rural districts. Using CESA 10’s connections with high schools, colleges and mental health care providers, the grant will be providing funds to each district to help address concerns with mental health, substance abuse, and technology training for teachers. They will also be expanding their connections to include more local aid from county health departments and law enforcement.

“We’re trying to address our needs in rural areas,” said Felhofer. “Give our small districts access to technology and get more courses in our rural districts and training for our staff. It’s nice to have some training, the technology won’t mean anything if you can’t work it. There will also be money going towards abuse and mental health issues.”

These needs in teacher training and mental health, Lindner said, are very real, and have become far more obvious in the wake of the pandemic.

“What this grant is trying to do is help us out, help our rural schools overcome some of the lack of educational opportunities that we have,” he said. “There is one thing they are working on and that is funds to help with mental health. We see it takes a toll on the staff. Back in March, we had one day to help teachers get ready for that (shutting down and going virtually). Hats off to all of the teachers and staff, with what they were going on they did a great job. But we have staff who are veteran teachers but are nervous about how to use this technology. Teaching then gives them confidence and makes them very comfortable with working on distance learning.”