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Mercedes, Texas: Capacity for Change in Rural America

February 2003

Mercedes, Texas -- In 1997, the Mercedes Independent School District in the Texas Rio Grande Valley had one fax machine at the district office and no instructional technology on any of the eight school campuses. Today, every classroom has 6 network drops with one or more computers connected and every student has access to a world of knowledge. The district serves 5,090 children, ninety percent of whom live at or below the poverty level and a large percentage of those children live in sub-standard housing that lack basic utilities.

"In an urban area, you can walk into any store and see technology in use," said Lucila Lagace, founder of the Social Venture Consulting Group. " In a rural setting, even local stores may not have the latest technology. Kids and parents here don't see it. Parents work in traditional jobs where they may not use it." If the schools do not become a hub of technology access and learning, the community may not develop the necessary workforce skills to compete in a global economy.

Too Many Hats and Too Few People
" I hear over and over from rural educators that they are committed to giving their kids the same world-class education as any other kids," said Kathy Brabec, Senior Technology Consultant, Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (MCREL). "Geography is an isolating factor. What is one of the leveling factors? The Internet. Bringing the Internet opens a lot of doors."

According to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 100 percent of rural schools and 89 percent of rural instructional rooms have Internet connections. The number of students per computer is lower in rural schools than it is in any other group. What sets them apart from urban schools, says Brabec, is their shortage of people who possess skills as both educators and technicians.

"In larger districts, someone is in charge of curriculum and instruction, someone in charge of technology," she says. "At smaller school districts sometimes there is a technical person, who doesn't have the curriculum point of view. When the bell rings, two-thirds of the teachers scatter to coach teams, chaperone field trips, or sponsor clubs. They are stretched thin already."

Vision First, Action Follows
Mercedes ISD created their program out of grants, including $1.5 million from NetDay and its partners, connected by an overall vision of improving learning and opportunities for students and the community. Superintendent Jesus M. Gandara articulated that vision and connected the remote district to resources throughout the country. In her former role as NetDay project manager, Lucila Lagace helped connect the disparate pieces and encouraged teachers to create and share their ideas.

Their success is evident in the Tech Dome, a covered area at Mercedes Junior High, where Librarian Judy Van Berg sees teachers and students coming up with new ways to use technology every week. A video conferencing system is used for distance learning and training. Mobile laptop carts give classes 1 to 1 computer to student access for intensive research.

" The Tech Dome gives every student in the district an opportunity to go places that they might not ever go otherwise," says Librarian Judy Van Berg.

Another grant funds Project Alegria ("happiness" or "joy" in Spanish), an after-school program with classes for students and community members. Teachers and others have offered classes to students and adult learners in a wide variety of subjects, including: technology skills, college preparation, study skills, cooking, and even sports.

Bridging the Comfort Gap
Even reluctant teachers have begun to come around to using technology, in part through support from NetDay AmeriCorps Bridge Members. When teachers in one school neglected to check out the mobile laptop carts, AmeriCorps members provided a solution.

" They ask the teacher a week in advance what they will be teaching, and they find a lesson they can use," said Sandra Garza, Program Coordinator. The AmeriCorps members bring the mobile lab to the classroom to save time for teachers. "The students are better behaved. And teachers want to know when the members will come back." She estimates that 30 to 40 percent of teachers have become more comfortable with technology during the first 9 months of the program.

Tapping Community Resources
According to the numbers, the digital divide is closing. But just because a school has a mobile computer lab does not mean that students are learning what they need to know. By the end of 2003, educators in Mercedes, Texas, will know how well they are doing when the Texas State Education Agency requires students to pass state standards for technology literacy.

Lucila Lagace knows the importance of an education. A first-generation American, she overcame the challenges of poverty, illiteracy, and cultural divides. She recently returned to her home town in the Rio Grande Valley to found her own non-profit consulting firm as an advocate for children and social justice. Lagace encourages rural school districts to look to their own community for solutions.

Solutions come in many forms -- partnerships with local universities, students doing a year of service with AmeriCorps, community-focused groups such as NetDay, and new local businesses. The key is finding resources that not only provide solutions but that also empower community leaders and key participants to do more for themselves.
According to Lagace: "They [schools] need to find that special category of person with enthusiasm for technology and an education background. They have to invite the world into schools."