Cattaraugus Allegany BOCES has been awarded a grant for $218,787 from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The grant, called the Rural Utility Service (RUS) grant will be used by Cattaraugus Allegany BOCES and six area school districts to upgrade video conferencing equipment. The upgrades to video conferencing equipment will provide Allegany Limestone, Bolivar Richburg, Hinsdale, Randolph, Salamanca and West Valley with new high definition video conference capabilities that the schools will use to have students and teachers take part in distance learning opportunities.
Currently, about 40 courses are being shared between schools using video conferencing equipment in Cattaraugus and Allegany counties. “It’s all about providing our high school students with a greater depth of transcript upon graduation,” said Lynda Quick, District Superintendent of Cattaraugus-Allegany BOCES. “Distance and Online learning opportunities are growing in the region and our regional leaders and teachers see the need to bring unique subjects and courses to our students,” says Ms. Quick. Through distance learning, school districts can share the expertise of their teachers, and students have the opportunity to take classes not offered in their home district. “Distance learning has allowed students in our region to take college level courses like Biology, Statistics, Spanish, and Psychology as well as elective courses like Veterinary Sciences and unique Foreign Languages. The video conferencing equipment allows students to connect beyond the four walls of their school to access these learning opportunities,” explains Brian Crawford, Program Manager for Learning Resources within the Instructional Support Division of Cattaraugus Allegany BOCES.
Each Spring, guidance counselors and school leaders from Cattaraugus and Allegany counties meet for an ‘All Schools’ Day Conference’ where courses are either offered out to other schools or courses are requested. At the most recent All Schools Day meeting, almost every school in our region has asked for or offered out a course for next fall. Courses are also shared statewide with other New York high schools.
This is not the first USDA RUS grant received by Cattaraugus Allegany BOCES and component school districts. The Distance Learning Team at CA BOCES has been applying for and receiving these RUS grants since 1997. With each grant award, CA BOCES has partnered with different districts in the area. Mr. Crawford explained, “The USDA RUS grants have brought over two million dollars in video conference equipment and infrastructure to our region in the past 15 years. They have made our region a leader in New York State distance learning education. I am fortunate to work with an incredible group of people on our Distance Learning Team that has invested a lot of time and effort to connect our schools. We have Betsy Hardy, the President of the New York State Distance Learning Consortium on our staff and Mike Torrey who has been the lead technician on all of the RUS grants from the start. It’s a great feeling to work with some amazing people and school districts on the cutting edge of education.”
Like any technology, video conferencing equipment evolves and improves over time. Recently, high definition video conferencing has changed the landscape of course sharing for teachers and students. “In a traditional classroom setting, the teacher may have a sense or feel for if the students understand the lesson well, have questions or are struggling. Sometimes that feeling is based on facial expressions or body language,” says Mr. Crawford. The high definition equipment in this grant will allow the teacher to interact on a more personal level with students at the far site. “In this grant we sought some special equipment called ‘Eagle Eye Director’ that will focus the camera automatically in on the face of the person speaking through voice and face recognition to make the video conference class more like a face to face class and allow students to engage more with other students from site to site. Getting students to talk to students is essential to learning,” said Mr. Crawford. The grant also has provisions to help the region move toward the ability to record video conference lessons so students can review content should they have been absent for a class or want extra review.
Over the two year phase of the grant implementation, districts will be installing the new video conferencing equipment and, as a result, hundreds of students will graduate with unique and advanced coursework, all within a 21st Century learning environment.