On-ramp to the Information Highway

Home & Family, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Technology
on April 15, 2001

Nearly 100 miles north of Harrisburg, a sleepy stretch of Interstate 80 rolls through the fields and farms of Clinton County, Pa., leading to the county seat, Lock Haven (pop. 9,074), a once thriving mill town. No traveler would suspect this rural setting boasts a state-of-the-art fiber optic network that townspeople hope will transform the region into a hub of high-tech enterprise.

In 1993, a group of community volunteers, including teacher Rich Wykoff, gathered around a kitchen table to talk about the general problems of the area. We got into a discussion focused on improving the overall level of education, Wykoff says.

All agreed Clinton County had fallen behind the times. Young adults were fleeing the region for work, though many returned, lacking the skills to succeed in the fast-paced world beyond their valley.

What the schools needed, the coffee klatch agreed, was a vast upgrade in computer education and equipment. Wykoff was intrigued by e-mail software recently installed in science teacher Judy Yohos classroom, but Internet providers had ignored the county, stranding residents in the information highways dust. Then, someone suggested, what if the entire county went online, creating an electronic village?

Wykoff explains, If our neighbors and children had the knowledge and skills that were attractive to high-tech industry, perhaps expanding businesses would make Clinton County their home.

The result of that kitchen conference was creation of KCnet: Keystone Community Network (www.kcnet.org) and KCSDnet: Keystone Central School District Network in Clinton County. The county encompasses 1,000 square miles, with a population of 35,0005,433 of them children in the county school district.

A committee was formed to link the schools to each other and to the Internet. Yoho, whom Wykoff credits with the projects successwithout her, wed have a blank screenbegan writing grant applications, while the school board released $2 million for the cause. That ignited the sparks.

Thousands of computers were installed in the district, and Yoho was named director of KCSDnets Technology Center, overseeing the schools computer and video networks. Sue Foust, a self-taught computer buff, became manager of KCnet, which went online in 1995. It now has 4,000 subscribers and 13 employees.

Foust hears many success stories, but the most heartwarming is the connection of families. E-mail is the most valuable thing we provide, she says.

KCnets Lock Haven offices feature a Learning Center offering low-cost computer classes. KCnet repairs donated old computers, then lends them to low-income families. Some residents find work online, farmers access forecasts, and regulars at senior centers surf the Net. Local government and businesses are online, and Lock Haven Hospital will soon share nursing classes with other hospitals through video hookup.

The cutting-edge computer training provided by local schools guarantees a future work force of skilled employees. But will there be jobs? That, says Foust, is our dream, helping existing businesses expand via the Internet, while wooing high-tech industries to the area.

KCnet has been a contributor to revitalization, says Wes Grand, head of the Clinton County Economic Partnership. Grand cites a quality work force, incentives programs, industrial parks, and Lock Havens newly remodeled downtown among the countys most attractive assets.

Since 1994, unemployment has dropped from 14 percent to 4.9 percent, but progress stalled when International Paper, the countys second-largest employer, recently announced its closing.

That blow, though painful, wont be fatal, Grand says. The partnership is courting new companies, and service-based firms eventually will supplant the regions smokestack past.

Michelle Renner, associate editor of The Lock Haven Express, also is optimistic. Shes already seen local can-do spirit in action: When Renner first heard the proposal for KCnet, I thought, Here? In little Clinton County?

Today, Renners 7-year-old, Jacob, like most area youth, is fluent in computerese and comes home from school excited about video classes he shares with students miles away.

Teenager Kerry Clausen became so computer proficient at school he was asked to teach a digital camera class at KCnet. Kerry also enjoys KCSDnets video network, which broadcasts student-produced news programs but finds its greatest value is communication: We can talk to anyone in any school in our district! Kerry says.

Even if Clinton County never becomes Silicon Valley East, the network has proven its worth, Wykoff says, in how the children have benefited and how the county has changed, exemplifying KCnets motto: Education for Everyone, Everywhere, Every Day.