By Madelynn Coldiron
Owsley County, in an isolated, high-poverty area of eastern Kentucky, has no industry and little retail. It is without a major roadway or stoplight and has not one fast-food restaurant.
But it does have one thing that is making all the difference in its school system: plentiful high-speed Internet access.
“We’re last in the state in a lot of categories, but in that instance, we’re one of the top in the state,” said Paul Green, Owsley County Schools’ chief academic officer and pupil personnel director.
PHOTO: Owsley County High School student Cami Bobrowski works online in the school’s computer lab on a dual-credit class. Last year, she earned 12 college credits. The lab, which hosts students throughout the day who work online, is staffed full-time by instructional assistant Vickie Price.
And the school district has been making the most of it, starting a few years ago with its Snowbound pilot project that enabled students to continue to do their classwork from home via the Web during inclement weather days when school was closed.
“It really gave us some insight about what we could do,” said Superintendent Dr. Tim Bobrowski, who was the pupil personnel director at that time. “It kind of motivated us to try what we could based on what we had, and that Internet access was huge.”
Since that time, the district has set up distance learning courses in partnership with other districts, launched a virtual school and made blended learning – classes that combine traditional teaching with online learning – a byword.
“I know myself as a past graduate of Owsley County, some things when I went to college I wasn’t exposed to, never had the opportunity to take because we didn’t have instructors to cover that content area, now our kids have those opportunities that we didn’t have,” said school board member Scotty Combs, who also sits on the KSBA Board of Directors.
Bobrowski said high-speed Internet access is available to 85 percent of Owsley County households through Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative. The district also tries to help students with surplus equipment if they don’t have their own home computers, while the telephone company has also donated service in some cases.
Some ways the Owsley County district is using its Internet advantage:
• Last year, the district shared college-level courses with Lee County Schools through a Microsoft Web-based program that functions as a distance learning setup. Green and Instructional Supervisor Stacey Davidson, both certified to teach at the college level, taught four dual-credit college history and English classes in person to Owsley County High students.
Through the distance learning program, Lee County students were able to take the class at the same time. Madison County Schools used the setup to share its high-school level mythology course with Owsley County High.
Madison County is no longer part of the arrangement and scheduling issues have interfered this year with Lee County’s participation. Bobrowski hopes the shared classes can resume in the future and is looking for other partner districts.
“I like the camaraderie of that because it showed districts working together, not always competing against each other, but working together to help our kids out,” he said.
• The district’s virtual school was a product of necessity this year when its alternative school had to be closed in a budget-cutting move. It serves not only those students who had been in the alternative program, but homebound students, those who re-enroll after dropping out and students who have met their college-readiness benchmarks and are taking college courses online. Seventeen students are now enrolled in the pilot program.
• In one of three counties in the five-year, federally funded Promise Neighborhood project, the school district has an electronic tool called Blackboard that allows teachers to upload their lessons and supplemental materials that students can access anywhere electronically.
Senior Blue Daniel said she frequently taps into Blackboard to supplement her classwork, especially in Spanish. “Instead of just learning from the book, it gives you a lot of additional material,” she said.
Davidson, the instructional supervisor, said teachers “have seen that learning doesn’t have to stop when the kids go home … The opportunity that whatever you do in class you can put online and the kids can see it anytime they want to, if they’re absent or even if they need to go back and review, it’s right there – just the opportunity to provide support for kids that we may not have been able to provide as efficiently as before is very exciting.”
The next step, she said, will be for teachers to put all their courses online.
• The school libraries are part of the Internet innovation. Students can check out e-books from their home computers. The district devised a summer reading program for students in which the local Internet provider donated free access, but the participation was disappointing, Bobrowski said.
• For blended learning opportunities, students can take dual-credit college courses online through Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky universities and Hazard Community and Technical College. They also can use online resources for independent study courses, for credit recovery, for independent study and for electives that interest them. The high school has a dedicated computer lab with a staff person for students who move between the regular classroom and online coursework.
Owsley County board member Joyce Campbell, a retired teacher and supervisor, said she was skeptical at first about the online classes, but has come around.
“I’m just real impressed with it,” she said.
Bobrowski, who graduated from Owsley County High in 1985, recalls teachers pinning hopes for the area on the building of a major roadway. There is still no physical road, but there is one that can’t be seen, he said.
“We looked for the road, but we can’t see the road that has really taken us out of here, and that’s the Internet,” he said.