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Success Stories

Distance Learning Grant Provides Window to the World for Rural Students

Tegan Griffith
Community Colleges
Distance Learning
Rural Development
Rural Partners Network
A hallway at a rural elementary school shows snowpants and boots across from a wall of blue lockers.

Halfway between Park Falls and Ashland is the rural community of Mellen, population 698. Nestled between the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and nearby Copper Falls State Park, this small community is humming with activity on an early Monday morning in March.

Students are trickling out from the large 1910 brick and stone building for their first break of the day. The school’s mascot, a Granite Digger, is a nod to nearby black granite quarries that produced the building’s stone.

On this spring morning, school district officials have invited USDA Rural Development for a tour to discuss a $999,480 Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant awarded to Northwood Technical College to equip 33 public K-12 schools in 18 counties with new interactive video distance learning equipment.

Mellen School District is just one of many to benefit from this grant.

The school serves around 260 pre-kindergarten to twelfth grade students all under the same roof. The walls are lined with student artwork; blue lockers have sticky notes with words of encouragement from their peers. Large, framed photos of alumni from decades past hang nearby. At the end of the hall, a small mural of a whale and ship with the words “I can’t control the wind but, I can adjust the sail” is painted in bright blue.

It’s easy to connect that quote to the opportunities these rural students receive simply because of distance learning.

A school hallway shows a mural painted in bright blue and white with a whale and ship on it.

“Students are meeting students from other places they might not have access to through things like athletics. That’s by far the best part,” says Steve Eder, Northern Wisconsin Educational Communications System (NWECS) Teacher. “The relationships between students in the other districts give me a great sense of joy. In my first year, my Sports Marketing class had students from Wauzeka-Steuben.”

Wauzeka-Steuben School District is a little over five hours south of Mellen, serving 280 pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade students.

“In the first few days of class, the students were shy. After a couple days, they started talking to each other. My students here get to learn about other kids and the traditions at other schools, and in turn, the other students get to learn about Mellen,” says Eder. “The following year, I learned the Juniors in my class started a fantasy football league with the kids from Wauzeka. They’re still in it to this day. It's those types of things that make this program cool.”

Heidi Stricker, Mellen High School Principal, joined the district around the same time as Eder. “I’ve been here 5 years now and we’ve done the work to change our master schedule and provide more choices for our highschoolers, but we are limited because we only have so much staff. Distance Learning gives opportunities to our students to take classes that we just can’t provide.”

Walking into the middle and elementary school side of the building, snowpants and muddy winter boots fill the racks outside classrooms; a rainbow of random mittens and hats are scattered about. The low murmur of young learners and their teachers can be heard from behind the heavy, wooden doors of their classrooms.

Upon entering the library, a teal-colored room in the back left corner, the District’s Distance Learning Classroom. Wayne Erdman, Northwood Tech’s Instructional Television Specialist, flips on the fluorescent lights. Three rows of tables with chairs occupy the space. An older model flat screen television and projector hang from the ceiling, another television is mounted on the wall. All technology in this room will be upgraded thanks to the grant.

Improvements in this room include new microphones, soundbar, and new cameras with auto-tracking capabilities.

A group of people in a distance learning classroom. Televisions are hanging from the ceiling.

“A lot of the technology we take for granted today were huge challenges when we first got started with distance learning,” said Erdman. “If a student in the back of the room is speaking, the technology detects who is talking and moves the camera automatically, making the learning experience better for students on the other end.”

In addition, the grant will provide new mobile learning carts equipped with 65-inch high-definition monitors and cameras which will allow teachers to provide things like virtual field trips for their students.

“We have smartboards that are dying, which has greatly reduced the quality of learning,” said Coreina Sticker, Media Specialist. “Now when we have students taking virtual field trips, they’ll have a better learning experience with a more vivid view of the tour.”

NWECS offers teachers access to programming through museums and public organizations. According to Amanda Kostner, NWECS Distance Learning Specialist, “A third-grade class just took a virtual field trip learning how to dissect owl pellets through the Audubon Society. The instructor was at our Rice Lake Campus, and we broadcasted it to the mobile learning carts at the participating schools. We even secured pellets for the third graders to dissect in the classroom.”

Standing in the back of the library discussing virtual field trips and owl pellets, the tour group is reminded of the time when the bell rings at 11 a.m. Students start spilling into the hallways and the lights in the library flicker on as students begin to arrive for their next period of instruction, just like that, we are back in rural Mellen, Wisconsin.

As the group gets closer to the front door, the mural in the middle of the school becomes even more relevant: “I can’t control the wind but, I can adjust the sail.”

Thanks to a USDA Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant, rural students in Mellen can access learning opportunities far beyond the banks of the Bad River.

In total, the College and its partners will use funds from the $999,480 grant for the NWECS-ERVING Collaborative Distance Learning Initiative to equip 38 individual sites throughout Douglas, Ashland, Barron, St. Croix, Bayfield, Dodge, Florence, Marinette, Sawyer, Iron, Forest, Juneau, Taylor, Wood, Price, Waupaca, Shawano, and Portage counties with the latest interactive video distance learning equipment. K-12 students will have better access to high school credit, college dual credit, and enrichment programming. Adults will access continuing education classes provided by Northwood Technical College and Cooperative Educational Service Agency (CESA).

Obligation Amount:
Year(s) of Obligation:
Congressional District:
  • Wisconsin: District 3
  • Wisconsin: District 5
  • Wisconsin: District 7
  • Wisconsin: District 8