Australian school builds community despite vast distances in the Outback

by Sally Holland, CNN

Alice Springs, Australia (CNN) -- In 9-year-old Georgia Auricht's classroom in the rural Australian bush town of Kulgera, there's only one other student -- her older brother, Jake -- and their teacher is 170 miles away.
"I love learning. I enjoy the math a lot and sometimes I like my times tables and I like a little bit of language too," said Georgia.
From the wide expanse of scrub bushes to the cows that wander onto the dusty roads, there's not much civilization in this part of Australia. Those who choose to live in the outback adapt to the isolation. Yet the community of a local school still brings them together, even from a distance.
    The small School of the Air building in Alice Springs, Australia, caters to elementary and middle school students as much as 800 miles away, covering an area twice the size of Texas or ten times the size of England.
    Georgia's father, Owen Auricht, is the officer in charge of Kulgera police station. His territory is so expansive and remote that it can take him five hours to get to a car accident in his jurisdiction.
    Growth of the Internet has made distance learning much more common now than just a few decades ago, when he took classes at the School of the Air.
    "Basically it was a radio the size of a six-pack of beer," said Auricht. "It was a little metal box that was linked up to an aerial on top of a schoolroom."
    Auricht received all of his books via mail, generally from air drop, at the beginning of the school year. Every few weeks, he would mail his written work and tests to his teacher in Alice Springs to be graded.
    Today's School of the Air students receive a complete IT setup including a satellite dish, computer, printer and scanner. They can see their teacher and the other students on the screen during classes, leading to more classroom interaction.
    "One of the loveliest moments in any teacher's experience here is when the child in their class has their very first online lesson," said School of the Air Principal Belinda Pearson. "They can see their teacher for the first time since they enrolled, and it's such an amazing moment, and they are connected then."
    The use of computers has definitely improved music class for the students. "I remember you would pick up the radio and you would push the button and the teacher would say all right, sing along," Auricht said. "You couldn't hear what the other kids were singing or doing, you just sort of had to do your own thing."
    Auricht found out just how bad they sounded during a visit to Alice Springs when he could hear all the kids at the same time.
    "Everyone would be singing off-key. Everyone would be singing at different times. It was unbelievable. But at the time, when you are sitting out in the bush, sitting in a little room with a microphone, you don't know anything different," he laughed.
    His daughter now takes guitar lessons over the computer. The teacher can see Georgia on her computer and provide instruction as to where the child should hold her fingers while playing.
    The School of the Air requires that each child have a home tutor, often their parent or guardian, who provides on-site guidance in their home classroom. Tutors do everything from marking papers to providing feedback on the students to the teachers back in Alice Springs.
    Georgia's mother, Gail Auricht, generally provides this service for both Georgia and her brother, Jake. She says it can be time-consuming.
    "Even though you get issued set work or you have a guide on what to do, you still need to be able to prepare how you are going to deliver that to the children," she said.
    With the advances in communications over the years, Gail Auricht still sees some disadvantages in distance learning.
    "I would say the social engaging is a concern," she said. "I feel that socially the children are disadvantaged."
    Georgia's brother Jake shows promise in sports as an 11-year-old, so the family spends at least six hours a week driving him back and forth to Alice Springs to take part in team sports.
    "We try to support that by doing these team group things with sports and playing and having friends come out," said Gail.
    "I'll probably be an American football player or a rugby player or maybe an Army dude. I like American football a lot. I like the Philadelphia Eagles," Jake said.
    "How to actually play normally or to be a part of normal life as a child, I never really had that as a younger child," said Owen Auricht. "I don't want them to have the same problems I did for a year or two when I went to the mainstream (school)."
    For its part, the School of the Air holds three to four events per year in Alice Springs, where the families are encouraged to bring the students to the school to spend time with their teachers and make friends. These include an in-school week at the beginning of the year, a sports week, where the children are divided up in teams on Monday and compete throughout the week, and a swim week.
      "My very first time at this school when all those families came in, it was unbelievable the closeness of the relationships that the children had with each other and their teachers, given that they hadn't seen each other for two or three months," said Pearson.
      "It's still probably not totally ideal for socializing, but the kids love this lifestyle," said Owen Auricht. "It's quite a lonely sort of life I suppose, as a child, but I'm saying that I loved it totally. It was an amazing way to grow up."