Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Road Trip

In honor of the Rural Schools Conference, I took the back roads to and from Cooperstown. On the way there, I passed through Dryden, Cortland, East Homer, Truxton, Cuyler, DeRuyter, Quaker Settlement, Otselic Center, Smyrna, Sherburne, Columbus, South Edmeston, Robinson Corners, Burlington, Oaksville.... On the way back, I saw Springfield, Warren, Richfield Springs, Hobin Corners, Madison, Pine Woods, Eaton, Georgetown, Sheds.... At times, I touched Otsego, Herkimer, Oneida, Madison, Chenango, Cortland, and Tompkins Counties. The most 21st-century thing I saw was the Munnsville Wind Farm, which is visible for miles in a taunting way before showing itself spectacularly near Madison. Otherwise, the woods and fields were a thousand shades of green, the corn varied from hip-high to overhead, every little gas station boasted live bait, children waded in the creeks, I was tempted by but did not enter a Petrified Animal Museum, and a dozen or more schools stood along my route in the shade of large trees.

Nearly all the schools dated from 75 to 80 years ago, when NYS started wholeheartedly to consolidate one-room schoolhouses into central school districts. It must have been a spectacular set of building projects, all of those proud buildings centered in villages along two-lane roads through the valleys. At the same time that the schools were being built, the state began a new numbering system for state roads, and paving took place on many rural thoroughfares. All this in the midst of the Great Depression! And although students in the villages walked to school, it is hard to imagine how some students got to school from the surrounding farms and tucked-away hamlets.

There are few things as beautiful as backroads New York State in July, especially a July that's seen a lot of rain. The creeks were full, and the crops looked healthy. I passed campgrounds that looked exactly the way campgrounds looked in the 1960s, ponds choked with water lilies, surprising little lakes with summer homes in various states of disrepair, occasional restored mansions with magnificent long views, and countless slow-moving farm vehicles around every blind bend.

It was the schools that drew my attention, however. They reminded me of our glory and our shame—the astonishing promise America makes to educate every child within its borders, and the fact that in New York State, the quality of a child's education is entirely dependent on his or her ZIP code.

At the conference, I met a superintendent whose district, not far from Cooperstown, not only lacks cell phone service and high speed Internet, but also does not have reliable electricity. Recently, during a down period for NYSEG power to the town, all Verizon phone service went down as well, meaning that no one in town, not elderly folks, not school employees—no one—could even dial 911. Verizon said this was because they were tired of supplying batteries for their generator just because NYSEG couldn't offer a steady stream of electricity.

This was especially interesting since one of the speakers at Rural Schools this year was the CEO of Verizon, himself the product of a small, rural school. His alma mater, near Buffalo, has been the beneficiary of many of Verizon's prized inventions. The Verizon robot, which allows sick children to "attend" school, was wandering around the conference, cracking jokes. Yet Verizon lets a small school district go without 911 service for hours or days because it is "tired" of supplying batteries for a backup generator. Certainly, in our county, Verizon has shown no interest whatsoever in going the final mile with cell or Internet service. We must rely on a local provider, which is now providing some broadband service in the area around Cooperstown, too.

I bring this up because it is clear from this conference that mergers and consolidations, while still under discussion, are not the panacea the governor hoped they'd be a couple of years ago. Because of the separate votes by districts (rather than one combined vote), most merger proposals fail as referenda. And rural mergers are not money savers, or so says the Commissioner. The mergers that would truly show savings are on Long Island, where three high schools within a stone's throw of each other may each provide AP European History courses to 7 or 8 students. However, there is no incentive to merge, because those schools can afford to provide AP European History courses to 7 or 8 students.

So the answer must be online courses and distance learning. That is the only way to provide students in rural districts the same kinds of extras (or even, in some cases, basics) that are regularly afforded students in rich districts. No broadband, no equity. It's as simple, and as difficult, as that.

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