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Area schools going high tech with distance learning, online courses

Rick Wagner • May 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — High school distance learning may be coming to Kingsport and online high school classes to Sullivan County, both in early 2010.

Kingsport already has online classes and may expand their use for an alternative school, while Sullivan County and Kingsport someday could join the Northeast Tennessee Distance Learning Consortium, which includes neighboring Hawkins County.

The main issue with distance learning — which allows real-time interaction between virtual classrooms linked by video and audio — has been coming up with grants or other sources of funding.

Because they were not “rural” enough, Kingsport and Sullivan County were ineligible for a share of more than $1 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture grants that helped jump-start the consortium, along with $300,000 in grants from the nonprofit Greeneville-based Niswonger Foundation.

However, Kingsport school officials in April learned their school system had won a $91,000 federal Perkins Reserve Grant for distance learning.

John Payne, director of technology for Kingsport City Schools, said the program probably won’t start until after Christmas since no more than 25 percent of the grant can be spent before Oct. 1.

However, Payne said he’s already been in contact with East Tennessee State University officials about the kinds of equipment to buy. Payne said the system plans to outfit a vocational classroom at Dobyns-Bennett High School with a studio and buy two mobile carts to be used elsewhere at D-B or other city schools.

Meanwhile, officials with Sullivan County Schools hope to compete for distance learning federal grants next year.

Sullivan County Director of Schools Jack Barnes said the county school board’s recent decision to approve an online e-learning program was a first step he hopes leads to distance learning.

Sullivan County is adopting that program with help from Tennessee High School in Bristol, which developed it. It will be implemented in Sullivan County by the second semester of the 2009-10 school year, after Christmas.

“We’ll try to move into distance learning when we can,” Barnes said. “We appreciate them (Tennessee High officials) sharing the (e-learning and distance learning) information with us.”

Schools from Hancock, Hawkins, Greene, Unicoi and Johnson counties, along with the Greeneville city system and Tennessee High, are part of the Northeast Tennessee Distance Learning Consortium, which is poised to pick up Carter and Cocke counties later this year.

As for e-learning, Payne said Kingsport five years ago was one of eight schools involved in a statewide online course program developed in Hamilton County, and D-B students can use that program.

He said a proposed non-traditional high school, included in the draft 2009-10 budget, would use online instruction.

Linda Irwin, director of school partnerships for Niswonger, said Greeneville’s system and Tennessee High got Niswonger grants for distance learning, while Johnson and Unicoi combined for one USDA grant, and Greene and Hawkins for a second USDA grant. Niswonger also provided $150,000 to each of those joint applications.

To fund the distance learning classrooms requires about $100,000 for a permanent setup and about $25,000 or $30,000 for each portable system, which can move from classroom to classroom, Irvin said.

Foreign language at the high school level was identified as a top need by the consortium, which was highlighted recently when former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist came to Bristol to see Tennessee High students participate in a French class being taught in Greeneville.

David Timbs, Sullivan County’s supervisor of testing and accountability, formerly was the K-12 supervisor of curriculum for Johnson County and wrote the USDA grant application there.

Timbs said another key feature of the distance learning is that students at home because of discipline issues, sickness or other reasons can view classes recorded on the system and stored on a school system’s computer servers.

“Most everyone has a DVR (digital video recorder) in the house where they can digitally record,” Timbs said.

In Hawkins County, the USDA grant and Niswonger money went toward equipment for Cherokee High School in Rogersville and Clinch School, a K-12 facility, since the government ruled that Volunteer High School wasn’t rural enough to be included.

However, the Hawkins County Board of Education in October voted to spend $75,000 for a virtual classroom at Volunteer in Church Hill.

The Greene and Hawkins and Niswonger partnership was one of 105 grant applications selected this year to receive funding from the USDA Rural Development Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant Program.

In Tennessee, only three K-12 school district applications were approved, two of which were sponsored by the Niswonger Foundation.

Bailey said Hawkins County officials have plans to incorporate the program into virtual classroom programs already available at Walters State Community College and ETSU.

Aside from Volunteer, Hawkins County will have one permanent virtual classroom and one portable unit purchased for Cherokee High, and two portable units for Clinch.

Greene County high schools included in the grant are West Greene, South Greene, North Greene and Chuckey-Doak.

Times-News staff writer Jeff Bobo contributed to this report.

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