OLEAN - Cattaraugus-Allegany BOCES has been awarded a $218,787 Rural Utility Services (RUS) grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This grant brings high definition video conferencing to schools in Allegany-Limestone, Bolivar-Richburg, Hinsdale, Randolph, Salamanca and West Valley enabling students to graduate with unique advanced coursework within a 21st-century learning environment.
"It's all about providing our high school students with a greater depth of transcript upon graduation," said Lynda Quick, district superintendent and chief executive officer of CA BOCES. "Distance and online learning opportunities are growing in the region, and leaders and teachers see the need to bring unique subjects and courses to our students."
Currently through BOCES' Instructional Support Services Division (ISS), about 40 distance learning courses are already being utilized between schools in Cattaraugus and Allegany counties. Districts can share the expertise of their teachers while giving students the opportunity to take classes not offered in their home schools.
High definition video conferencing provides area high school students with unique and advanced coursework not otherwise available to them.
"Distance learning has allowed students to take college-level courses like biology, statistics, Spanish, and psychology, as well as electives such as veterinary sciences and unique foreign languages. The video conferencing equipment connects students beyond the four walls of their school to access these learning opportunities," explained Brian Crawford, ISS program manager for Learning Resources.
Each spring, guidance counselors and education leaders across the two counties meet for an "All Schools Day Conference." At the most recent gathering, Crawford said nearly every district in the CA BOCES region either requested or offered out distance learning courses for next fall. Courses are also shared statewide with other New York high schools.
Improvements in video conferencing are changing the landscape of course sharing, Crawford said. In a traditional classroom setting, the teacher may sense if students understand the lesson well, have questions or are struggling based on facial expressions or body language.
"In this grant," he noted, "we sought special equipment called 'Eagle Eye Director' that will focus the camera automatically on the person speaking through voice and face recognition to make the class more like a face-to-face class. This way, students can engage more with other students from site to site. Getting students to talk with each other is essential to learning."
The grant, which will be implemented over a two-year phase, also has provisions to help move the region toward recording video conference lessons. Students will be able to go back and review content should they have an absence or need extra study time.
Crawford said, "Over the past 15 years, the USDA Rural Utility Services grants have brought more than $2 million in video conference equipment and infrastructure to make our region a leader in NYS distance learning education."
"I am fortunate to work with an incredible group of people who have invested a lot of time and effort to connect our schools," he added. "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 the RUS grants from the start. It's a great feeling to work with amazing people and school districts on the cutting edge of education."