In the rural Mendocino (California) Unified School District, a locally developed computer network eliminates one of the greatest challenges facing many small, rural, budget-tight districts. How does this rural school district afford high-quality Internet access? What effect does that access have on the schools? What are students doing with the technology? Education World writer Wesley Sharpe answers those questions and more. Included: Four unique student projects make use of technology and educate the communities.
Northern California's scenic coast might not be the place most newcomers would expect to find high-quality Internet access. But thanks to the Mendocino Community Network (MCN), a nonprofit business owned and operated by the Mendocino Unified School District, computer users benefit from "56K modem dialup, ISDN [integrated services digital network], and Frame Relay access, WWW, and other services."
"There are similar programs run by colleges and universities, but I believe that the Mendocino Community Network is the only Internet service provider [ISP] owned and operated by a K-12 school district," MCN business manager Rennie Innis explained to Education World. "Internet access, especially the quality that Mendocino Community Network supplies, was totally unaffordable to the Mendocino School District when MCN was created," added Innis.
"Our goal for the students is to experience seamless and transparent Internet services," Innis told Education World. Mendocino Community Network is the sole ISP to about 1,000 students in seven schools in a 450-square-mile area. In addition, its customer base includes parents, community members, businesses, and organizations. Innis listed some benefits provided by MCN:
In 1997, a grant from the Annenberg Rural Challenge (now called the Rural School and Community Trust) enabled the Mendocino district to join with neighboring school districts to form the NCRCN, project coordinator Deena Zarlin told Education World.
"As the project developed, students and teachers in the NCRCN districts stayed in touch through e-mail and videoconferencing," said Zarlin. "The project's goal was to enlarge student learning and to improve community life by strengthening relationships between rural schools and communities and engaging students in community-based public works."
"Since they were awarded the Annenberg Rural Challenge Grant, NCRCN schools have established a presence in their communities not only with their business collaborations but also with more than 70 different projects," wrote Victor Rivero in Connections for Life in Northern California (in the May 1999 issue of the magazine Converge). "They are taking advantage of digital voice, camera, and videoconferencing technologies as well as a Web site, Internet connections, and e-mail. They are creating project-based learning experiences rich in culture, content, and results."
In January 1998, a team of Mendocino High School photography and writing students decided to document the lives of artists who had settled in Mendocino in the 1950s. They set up the Rural Artists and Artisans Documentation Project and published Mendocino Artists: An Endangered Species in May 2000. The book and the project Web page contain black-and-white portraits of Mendocino County artists along with their recollections and samples of their work.
High school senior Rebecca Miller interviewed most of the artists and wrote the profiles published in the book. "We wanted to find out when the artists came to Mendocino and why they stayed. Many seemed to appreciate what we were doing and that we were interested in their stories," Miller told Education World.
"I started the project as a freshman and worked on it for three years. I went on every interview except one, and I'm proud of that," Miller said. "The artists didn't just accept an ordinary life or job. I liked that they could say this is what I want, and then make a living as artists."
Mendocino Coast Tide Pools
Another NCRCN project, Tidepooling Adventures Along the Mendocino Coast, is a guide to exploring tide pools along the Mendocino coast.
With the help of Mendocino faculty and expert community members, 14 biology students designed, photographed, and wrote the text for the tide pool Web site and an accompanying booklet. The Web site and booklet include photographs and descriptions of the birds and easy-to-find marine organisms that visitors can find in the area's tide pools.
"The tide pool guide highlights a valuable resource and emphasizes the need for [tide pool] protection and preservation," NCRCN coordinator Deena Zarlin told Education World. "The guide also helps locals and tourists to be sensitive to this remarkable resource. And it shows the high level of professionalism that high school students are capable of."
Young Producers for Earth & Sky
The nearby Anderson Valley Unified School District, located in Boonville, serves more than 500 students in a 30-mile-long coastal valley that includes several small towns nestled among rolling hills.
Computer technology provided by the Mendocino Community Network is not a mystery to the Anderson Valley students. "NCRCN projects are embedded in the curriculum," coordinator Mitch Mendosa told Education World. "Students use the Internet for research and they create Web pages, compile statistics, and make multimedia presentations," Mendosa said.
Each school year, teams of elementary school children participate in the annual Young Producers Project sponsored by the Earth & Sky radio series and the National Science Foundation. For the project, teams of students produce 75-second radio programs on any science topic of interest to them. The grand prize-winning team receives a $1,000 savings bond, and four other teams win $500 bonds.
"Anderson Valley students have won five awards, and this year  a team won the grand prize," Mendosa told Education World. "Community interest in the project is high. Adults help kids research and produce their projects, and each team of children has an adult mentor helping them. Children learn to make digital audiotape recordings. They edit the tapes and export the best to the computer so they can burn a CD," said Mendosa.
How does it feel to be the grand prize winner? Anderson Valley students were pretty excited! "Choosing a topic, writing our script, and recording our Earth & Sky show was hard, and we couldn't keep still because we were excited and nervous," Ras S. and Juan P. told Education World. "When we won, it felt like we were about to explode. It was very fun to know that people all over the world would hear our show about hydropower and know that we won."
Voices of the Valley
Anderson Valley school students created a book and CD called Voices of the Valley, an oral history of Boonville and the surrounding area. The project was so popular, students created and marketed a second volume, and a third is scheduled. The books and CDs are sold in local bookstores and businesses.
"I think one of the important benefits of the [Voices of the Valley] project is the way the community feels about the students. Nobody in town can produce the high-quality CDs, for instance, and the students are looked up to as the town historians. This gives their self-esteem a tremendous boost," Mendosa told Education World.
According to the U.S. Department of Education report Secretary's Conference on Educational Technology 2000: Measuring Impacts and Shaping the Future, "If students and teachers are to take full advantage of what technology makes possible in teaching and learning, schools ... must become more student-centered, more focused on 21st-century skills, more open to innovation through technology."
Mendocino and other school districts in the rural communities along California's north coast are doing just that.
Article by Wesley Sharpe, Ed.D.
Copyright © 2001 Education World