Final BIA school goes online
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The Bureau of Indian Affairs reached a milestone this week as the last of its 185 schools was connected to the Internet, the culmination of a four-year project to bring access to even the remotest communities in Indian Country.

With the click of a mouse, literally, at the Chichiltah / Jones Ranch Community School on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb on Wednesday brought the school into the 21st century. It was a more difficult task than it looked, as the BIA had been working all week to finalize the school's connection, one of the remaining four which had yet to go online.

The first order of business for McCaleb and the group of students, parents administrators, tribal officials and elders who gathered at the K-8 school in northwestern New Mexico was sending an email to Secretary of Interior Gale Norton. "Mr. McCaleb has arrived at Chichiltah," the students proudly proclaimed, receiving a congratulatory response from Washington, DC, within minutes.

Their second order of business?

"What really lit them up was when we dialed up to Disneyworld," said McCaleb. "That made an impression on them."

With McCaleb -- who admitted he sometimes has trouble sending his own e-mails -- as their guide, the students surfed their way into a whole new world. It was an exciting experience not just for the students, but for community members as well, many of whom had never been online.

The kingdom of Mickey and Minnie may be miles away but through the power of the Internet, said McCaleb, the students have stumbled onto opportunity. They can now tap into educational and economic benefits which may have not been available before, he said.

"When they learn they can reach out to any place in the world with the Internet to get any kind of information they want," he said, "they'll become adept at using that technology and will make themselves marketable."

The bottom may have fallen out of the dot-com market -- for now, challenged McCaleb -- but in Indian Country, many communities have yet to even break the technology barrier. On the three-state Navajo Reservation, for instance, as many as 80 percent of homes are without basic telephone service, according to federal statistics.

That situation is changing, if slowly. One of the goals of the Access Native America project was bringing the Internet to the local community in addition to the schools.

"Availability helps the community," said McCaleb. "Anyone in the community has access to the Internet" at a local BIA school.

Along with partners Microsoft, the Laguna Pueblo Department of Education, the University of Kansas and the University of Texas, the Department of Interior has undertaken the large task of building its own nationwide network. Using disparate telecommunications technologies such as wireless, satellite and fiber-optic networks, the US Geological Survey, a bureau of the Interior, has helped to bring the Internet to schools in varying geographic locales.

"We are our own ISP," said William Mehojah, Jr., director of the Office of Indian Education Programs at the BIA. He was on hand at the Chichiltah yesterday as well.

Mehojah said most schools are using industry-standard T1 connection, providing some of the highest upload and download speeds available. Others, such as the Chichiltah, which uses wireless technology, have reduced speeds.

Providing telecommunications service to the schools costs the BIA about $4.5 million a year, said Mehojah. In some areas, the BIA has been able to work with tribally-owned telecoms, he added.

The USGS monitors the network to ensure it is up and running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Specialized hardware and software filter out viruses and objectionable content, said Mehojah.

The Bush administration's push to eliminate a $1 billion backlog in tribal school construction should not affect existing network infrastructure, according to Mehojah. When new buildings are constructed, new wiring will enable them to connect to the existing network that has been put in place.

The other schools which just went online are Baca Community School in New Mexico; Jicarilla Dormitory in New Mexico and Winslow Dormitory in Arizona.

Relevant Links:
Office of Indian Education Programs, BIA -

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