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A census of people living on the Qualla Boundary will soon begin following a unanimous vote from Tribal Council to approve $273,000 for the project.

How would you spend $800 million?

Residents and opinion leaders from the seven westernmost counties and the Qualla Boundary have just completed a series of input sessions design to gather broad-based feedback to help answer just that question.

By the end of this year, nearly every student in the six westernmost counties will have unprecedented access to technology in the classroom.

Thanks to a collaborative project called WNC EdNet, high-speed Internet will become a reality for all public and charter school classrooms in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon and Swain Counties, along with the Qualla Boundary.

WNC EdNet recently got the go-ahead to connect The Highlands School — the last remaining school to join the regional network.

As late as 2000, schools in Western North Carolina could only transmit 1.5 megabyte per second. Now, schools with fiber can enjoy 100 megabyte per second connections.

Once these high-speed connections are in place, star pupils from far-flung schools can join together in a virtual classroom to take advanced courses that aren’t normally offered at their own schools. Live video will allow for face-to-face interaction between students and teachers.

“It’s not like an online class,” said David Hubbs, CEO of BalsamWest FiberNET, which implemented the WNC EdNet project. “You’re speaking to or interacting with a teacher in real time.”

Linking up to the state network creates access to The North Carolina Virtual Public High School, which already offers 72 courses including Advanced Placement and world language classes.

The widespread reach of fiber across North Carolina to even the most rural schools holds the promise of creating a level playing field for students, according to Bob Byrd WNC EdNet project manager.

“That’s our big push now, to narrow that digital divide,” said Byrd.

Moreover, fiberoptic technology makes professional training more readily available for teachers. Once colleges are hooked up to the statewide K-12 network, student-teachers at Western Carolina University or other colleges may observe teachers in actual classrooms without interrupting lessons.

Being on the same fiber network also decreases overhead for school systems, which only have to pay one Internet bill for all their schools, Hubbs said.


Jumping hurdles


The WNC EdNet project has traveled down a long road to get to where it is now.

Nearly 60 schools have been hooked up to their central office in the county via a fiberoptic line, which makes broadband Internet possible and also provides an important backbone for communication between the school district office and individual schools.

A separate project by a nonprofit called MCNC is in turn connecting these school district offices to a statewide fiber network, the North Carolina Research and Education Network. Now, MCNC is also working on linking colleges up to the state network.

WNCEdNet piggybacked onto the larger BalsamWest project, which has installed hundreds of miles of fiber underground to promote economic development in the Western North Carolina.

The mountainous terrain was a major obstacle BalsamWest had to overcome while installing equipment underground.

“The very things that we love about our rural area create challenges for technology,” said Hubbs.

Constructing in the remote area between Cashiers and Highlands was another challenge. BalsamWest had to speak individually to every property owner to get permission to build.

“We had more private easements between Cashiers and Highlands than we did everything else put together, over 300 miles,” said Hubbs. About 15 grant applications had to be submitted to lock down funding for the $6.1 million WNC EdNet project. The project was partly funded by the Golden LEAF Foundation, which chipped in $2.2 million, and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, which contributed $1.7 million.

Even with 12 different partners — including Southwestern NC Planning & Economic Development Commission, the Western Region Education Service Alliance, seven school districts and three colleges — WNC EdNet was smoothly coordinated.

A similar project in eastern North Carolina had failed due to infighting, according to Leonard Winchester, chairman of the WNC EdNet technology committee.

WNC EdNet coordinators were asked to come to Raleigh and explain how their particular project ended in success. Winchester said cooperation was key.

“We had a group of people that trusted each other,” said Winchester. “That trust, you can’t give to somebody else.”

Several years ago, an idea was planted to establish an institution of higher education on the Qualla Boundary that would emphasize and preserve the rich artistic traditions of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Out of that dream, the Oconaluftee Institute of Cultural Arts took root — and today, the program is thriving.

The OICA was created out of a desire to establish a community college on the reservation and is only the second higher education institution in the country to offer a two-year degree in Native American arts.

The program celebrated its move into a new location in Cherokee last week. With its 5,600 square feet, studio spaces, a gallery space and a classroom to house its 10 students, the new home of the OICA is testament to how far the program has come.

The arts college was established in 2007 through a partnership with Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University. It started out with two students in a space barely big enough to turn around. But while the program had humble beginnings, it was built around a lofty and unique vision.

“A lot of art has been focused out West, and a lot of people’s impression of Native American art is Southwestern art,” says Luzenne Hill, marketing director for the OICA. “But every tribe interprets their art in a different way.”

Specifically, the program aimed to showcase the artistic traditions of tribes east of the Mississippi River. Craftmaking, initially born out of necessity, has been passed down through generations by native tribes like the Eastern Band. Skills like basketweaving, woodcarving and pottery are so intertwined with native culture that many tribal members simply see them as a way of life.

“For decades, our people have been crafters, but haven’t always looked at their crafts as art,” said Juanita Wilson, chair of the OICA board.

The OICA teaches traditional art forms like basketweaving with native materials, pottery, and wood carving. But students also receive education in a variety of non-traditional art forms.

“We insisted that we keep tradition at the heart of it, but also wanted to go beyond that,” Wilson said.

Students learn traditional arts and crafts, but are also instructed on foundations of art education like western art history, drawing, and painting. Hill said the goal is to enhance the students’ art experience as much as possible, so that whatever speaks to them can also become a way of expressing their work.

“What we want to do is open people up and say, these are possibilities,” Hill said.

Henrietta Heeter, the first graduate of the program, knows perhaps better than anyone of the possibilities the program helps students to see. The OICA enticed Heeter to pursue her first higher education degree at the age of 50.

What finally convinced Heeter to return to school was, “the thought of our people having our own art institute, because there are amazing artists here,” she says.

Heeter says she’s enjoyed it all — from pottery, to carving, to weaving on a loom with native rivercane and white oak. Her true passion lies in painting, which she did at the OICA with pastels, charcoal, watercolors, and other materials.

“It opened me up to other possibilities with what I can do with my art,” Heeter says. “Hopefully I can now make a living off of it.”

Through the program, which directly transfers to a fine arts degree program at Western Carolina University, Heeter will go on to pursue an undergraduate degree.

The tribe, in conjunction with SCC and WCU, hopes to expand the OICA to attract students from all over the Southeast and Midwest, eventually increasing the program’s enrollment to 25 or 30 students.

Program leaders ultimately hope to locate the OICA in a permanent home in the old Cherokee High School.

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