Reversing a 'Brain Drain' in Green County, Pa.

Green County, Pa., located in the Rust Belt and saddled with a poverty factor of more than 25 percent, has spent decades trying to recover from a mass exodus of workers that has left the area's work force depleted. The county now is pinning its economic hopes on a high-tech educational infrastructure funded in part by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

"We are building an educational infrastructure here to attract people and businesses," said Charles Reinbold, Green County's school superintendent. "We've had a serious brain drain over the last 30 years as people have left the county to go to bigger cities and metropolitan areas because there were no jobs here. We are trying to overcome that."

Since 1993 the USDA has used its Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) Grants Program to reach out to rural areas such as Green County-places at the greatest risk of being left even further behind in the Information Age. The $150 million program is composed of grants and low-interest loans. While the value of individual grants is somewhat low-averaging $200,000 to $300,000-applicants are learning to leverage USDA funds along with other federal and state grant programs.

Green County used the $336,000 that it received from the USDA as well as a larger sum from the U.S. Education Department's Technology Grant program to equip schools with high-tech learning tools. "We won both of the grants back-to-back-bang, bang," Reinbold said.

By harnessing both programs, Green County was able to build a broadband fiber-optic network, which allows teachers to run full-motion video in the classroom. By day, the network is used to educate students; by night, it becomes a tool for training adults. "A lot of people in our county never graduated from high school, so we've tried to rebuild the infrastructure of the county by providing all kinds of services geared toward adult retraining," he said.

Billy Franklin, a school superintendent in rural Texas, had a similar story to tell. The Fort Hancock Independent School District used DLT dollars in combination with a grant from the state to build an educational infrastructure to serve the area's 500 students. Geographically isolated and completely without a public transportation system, the county used the nearly $300,000 it received from the USDA to enhance funding for its distance-learning initiative. That effort has connected K-12 classrooms with El Paso Community College, built several computer labs and put a computer in every classroom. "I'm an old man now," Franklin said. "But one thing I sure would like to see is this [infrastructure] connected to every household in our community."

Spurring the ruined economies of agrarian communities is what DLT is all about, said Claiborn Crain, assistant to the USDA administrator for rural utilities service. "Wherever we are in America, we tend to think that the whole world is like it is where we are. People don't realize how hard it is to get access to quality education and medical attention in rural America," he said. "Rural areas tend to get left behind because the demand for technology is so much greater in urban centers."

But stories such as those of nursing students in rural communities completing full coursework over the Internet speak to the success of the program, Crain said. "Almost without exception, projects funded through past packages end up doing more than they said they did, often doing things like combining advanced placement education with adult education."

The DLT program was born out of the 1990 Farm Bill, but it went unfunded until 1993. Since then, the grant program has carried annual values as high as $12.5 million, but it dipped one year to $7.5 million. Since 1993 DLT has funded 192 projects totaling $52 million in 41 states and one U.S. territory. Those areas encompass 850 schools and learning centers as well as 600 hospitals and rural health clinics.

DLT administration is similar to that of the National Telecommunications and Information Agency's Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program. And both are fiercely competitive: The USDA turns away about three applicants for every one that it funds. "The grants portion of the program is much more popular than the loan program. But the grant program is far more competitive," Crain said. "We are trying to steer as many people as we can to the loans."

*****

Ins and Outs of the DLT Grants Program

* Applications were due June 1. See www.usda.gov/rus/dlt for information on next year's program.

* Clinton earmarked $15.2 million in DLT grants and $150 million in loans in the fiscal 1999 budget, but Congress is still deliberating on actual amounts.

* State and local governments cannot be directly funded but should encourage their educational and medical institutions to apply.

* Eligible applicants include rural-area school libraries, hospitals and health care facilities.

* Similar tribal entities also may apply.

* Urban institutions may partner with rural outfits but will not receive direct payment.

* Classic attempts to establish distance learning or telemedicine take precedence, but the USDA leaves room for broad interpretation of those applications.

* The program is aimed at funding hardware buys but also will cover software, training and technical assistance.

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