VERDE VALLEY - Educators from kindergarten to college have joined the countywide pursuit for broadband, citing the need for Internet-based learning and the possibility of additional programming for rural schools.
Without broadband and leading in to the new, online PARCC assessment, county groups have been working to bring the most rural schools up to speed.
Century Link agreed to lay fiber out to the Oak Creek School in Cornville in exchange for the district staying with the company for a certain number of years, said Kathy Epperson, Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District technology integration coach.
COCSD was one of several who recently gave the computerized PARCC assessment a practice run, which the technology department had been anticipating.
"Our district has been keeping an eye on this from the very beginning," Epperson said. "The technology department has been watching the bandwith use."
Students are going to be working online more to conduct research and write papers, and even third graders who take PARCC are going to need typing skills. Mingus Union High School Students have an entire Mac lab equipped with 30 computers media students use to edit video shot on high-resolution cameras.
"It's one of those things where the more you get, the more you use," Epperson said.
The district invested $20,000 for each of its schools to install servers, allowing the campuses to be wireless for the Bring Your Own Device program.
"We're just trying to keep an eye out and be ahead," Epperson said. "Our department's always looking at increasing our bandwidth in the future."
Technology administrator Stan Goligoski works for the Yavapai County Education Service Agency and Educational Technology Consortium to help communities bargain for better rates from providers.
"We're just trying to improve the technology in schools as a whole, bringing them up to even 21st century classrooms, getting students ready for the environment they would have in colleges and then in their careers," he said.
Goligoski said he and his colleagues have been reaching out to rural schools who would otherwise end up paying inflated prices to providers who don't really have a vested interest in actually serving these campuses' needs.
"A lot of these providers, they look at a school, the municipalities and emergency services, these community anchor institutions, and they see them kind of as cash cows, if you will," he said. "For the schools, when we can consolidate them together, we're not going to get gouged because we have greater leverage."
This method is now being mimicked at the state level, he said, and his organization is a resource for schools because they have blacklisted companies that treat schools unfairly.
"By doing this with a county perspective, we're able to help out more of those smaller schools under one contract in order to get them a reduced rate and bring the needs to light for providers," he said.
Schools are also being made aware of federal programs that reimburse for technology improvements based on poverty levels.
"By the community coming together, that's how you actually are going to solve this," he said.
Yavapai College Chief Information Officer Patrick Burns said the school has a partnership with Cable One to bring a high-speed connection to each campus, with one difficulty lying with the Sedona campus.
"In Yavapai County, we just don't have that many choices of different carriers and that high of speeds," Burns said. "There is a big variance between rates of speed you can get in different communities just because of a lack of providers."
The school, whose film program is being sunsetted after this year, recently began formal talks with the cultural park surrounding the Sedona campus to get more space for students to legally park and walk to classes.
Burns said along with a lack of providers, the proximity of those scenic red mountains makes Internet in Sedona unreliable.
"The film school and the campus in general there have a lot of needs for Internet," he said.
Online education has been the college's major push as younger generations start to prefer the flexibility. Burns said the lack of reliable Internet presents a barrier for students living in rural areas.
"Broadband gives access to many people that wouldn't have access, who wouldn't be able to take classes," Burns said. "For working adults, having that 24-hour access to take classes is kind of a life-changer for them."
For younger students, the value comes from accessing supplemental tutoring online while they do homework at home. More districts are starting to allow parents to check grades, add money to lunch accounts, and even register their kids for school, all online.
"Most of these things require a nice, reliable high-speed connection," he said. "That's difficult to get into our rural communities and there are limited options for people."
Verde campus dean James Perey said the college has been involved in the consortium's efforts to bring broadband to the Verde Valley, and partner with K-12 schools to bring them additional resources.
Broadband adds opportunities for programming and creates a K-16 "pipeline to higher education" for rural areas like Beaver Creek, he said.
"This would be a good thing for education countywide and especially for those areas, those rural areas, that haven't had this capacity or technology before," Perey said.
Cottonwood economic development director Casey Rooney has been working on the broadband project for five years, and said there hasn't been a ton of progress yet.
"From a rural perspective, it takes a long time," he said. "The stars are aligning right now regarding State Route 260."
With the construction slated for as early as 2016, he said there is now the possibility of actually making it happen instead of just talking about it. The process is a three-legged stool, with communities, the Arizona Department of Transportation, and service providers all having to work together.
"It takes a while," he said. "It takes people to be in the right positions to encourage it to happen."
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