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Forward thinking helps U.P. schools push ahead with technology

Students work in the computer lab at Superior Central.

Superior Central School is located in rural Eben.

Superior Central student Dayne Nelson sprays tomato plants.

Superior Central student Eli Pasanen adds fertilizer to tomato plants.


A third of our nation's approximately 100,000 public schools were located in rural areas in 2010 -- roughly 32,000 of them. That's significantly more than the 27,000 suburban schools, the 26,000 in cities and the 14,000 town schools that comprise the rest of the statistical breakdowns, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES).

Sounds like great news for rural-area facilities, right?  Not so fast.

Don't forget the impact of enrollment numbers and the corresponding dollars each student brings to a school district. The fact is that in spite of the higher numbers of rural schools, far fewer young matriculates attended public schools in rural areas than in suburbs and cities. The NCES reported national rural enrollment at about 12 million -- just 24 percent of America's total. Around 17 million were enrolled in suburban schools and 14 million of them walked through the doors of city schools.

The question is this: how do primary and secondary students who attend remote schools manage to learn and leave school with the tools they need to prepare them for adulthood? Whether it is military service, the workforce or post-secondary life, the answer for two U.P. districts is the adoption of evolving technology that allows them to keep the pace.

The Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium and Keweenaw (CLK) and Superior Central Schools are among them.

"CLK is one of the most technologically advanced districts in the nation," says Darryl Pierce, the Calumet-based superintendent of the Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium and Keweenaw. "Every student [in grades four through 12] receives an Apple iPad2," he says.

Each classroom has an interactive projector and white board to create a visual learning environment, and high school students have the rare chance to build and work with 3-D printers. CLK Schools operates the Upper Peninsula Virtual Academy (UPVA) as well. It's a tuition-free virtual school that any K-12 student in the U.P. is eligible to enroll in.


The CLK Schools also partner with nearby Gogebic Community College to offer an Early College Program, one that Pierce takes particular pride in. By taking a combination of high school classes and college courses, Calumet High School students graduate from CLK's Early College Program with both a high school diploma and an associate's degree. The credits they earn are transferable to a university or a four-year college for undergraduate studies.

"It's tuition-free," says Pierce, of the program that was launched in 2012. "Absolutely no tuition cost to the students or their families for these courses."

Seems that the efforts are paying off.

Bridge Magazine named its yearly top 10 most overachieving school districts in the state for 2014 -- and Calumet, Laurium and Keweenaw dominated the districts in their region. Descriptions of the processes and requirements necessary to achieve them are online here.

The accolades continue to roll in, so as impressive as Pierce considers that distinction, it's a fraction of the recognitions that he, his staff, his community and his students have earned bragging rights to.

Calumet High School was also one of Newsweek Magazine's 2,000 highest-ranked schools in the nation for 2012-2013, and for seven years running; it also has been among "America's Best" high schools, Pierce says, which is named by U. S. News and World Report, in collaboration with School Evaluation Services.

"That agency has also ranked our high school as the 51st best in the state of Michigan," Pierce says. "We're very proud of that."

Superior Central Schools, which straddles rural sections of a few central U.P. counties, is another U.P. district that continues to utilize evolving innovation -- as well as its own special advantages -- to offer the best possible education to its K-12 students, though all 350 of them are housed in one building.

That's right -- 137 elementary school students, 81 middle schoolers and 123 high school students coexist using the latest techno-techniques to enhance their educational experience--as well as benefits most larger districts cannot offer.

Being so removed can be a bonus, not a hindrance, according to principal and superintendent Bill Valima.

"We have a 70-acre campus with a pond on the property and woodsy areas--so our kids have some unique opportunities. They can collect maple syrup, take water samples from the pond to test the pH levels," he says. "We also have a ski and fitness trail right here on our campus."

Agriculture is vital to the area, so a partnership with local farmers is an important part of the chance for hands-on experience in learning how things grow, thanks to the district's hoop house.

"Students plant in the spring. They take soil samples, prepare for composting, weed and harvest their crops of lettuces, spinach, carrots and cucumbers," Valima says. "It helps them learn the nutritional value of the food they grow. Community volunteers keep the crops thriving during summer break."

Superior Central also collaborates with Michigan Virtual University and takes advantage of that partnership to be able to offer the latest in computer science, CAD program courses and more. Virtual courses are also part of curriculums designed to give students the edge they need to leave school successful and prepared for the world.

"Technology is the backbone of the 21st century and this generation of students are digital natives," Valima says. "We are simply capturing this enthusiasm and bringing it into the classrooms."

Jeff Barr has been a Michigan resident for 48 years and has been covering Michigan for more than 25. Jeff can be reached at JeffBarr88@gmail.com. Kelle Barr also contributed to this article. Reach her at Kellebarr@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter: @BarrKelle

This article originally published in Upper Peninsula's Second Wave, through a partnership with the Michigan Public Schools Partnership.
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