(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)
The new “question-of-the-week” is:
What are successful poor rural districts doing and how do they accomplish their mission?
In Part One, Silvia Ibarra, Amanda Koonlaba, Jennifer Hesseltine, and Rita Platt shared their experiences while working in successful rural districts. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Silvia, Amanda and Jennifer on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.Today, PJ Caposey, Dr. Heidi Pace, Dr. Catherine Beck, Jocelyn A. Chadwick, and Rachael George contribute their thoughts on the topic. I also include comments from a reader.
Response From PJ Caposey
PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, author of two books (Teach Smart and Building a Culture of Support), and sought after speaker and consultant specializing in school culture, principal coaching, effective evaluation practices, and student-centered instruction. PJ currently serves as the Superintendent of Schools for Meridian CUSD 223 in Northwest Illinois and can be reached via twitter (@MCUSDSupe):
Whether you subscribe to the ranking systems of schools put forth by outside entities or not, for the sake of this blog I encourage you to indulge me. Of the Top 60 schools in my state (Illinois) as ranked by US News and World Report, only one school could be considered rural, and it is certainly not poor and boasts a teacher: student ratio of 1:13. My steadfast belief is that students in rural areas are not inherently any less academically talented than their peers, so how could such discord between achievement levels of students in urban, suburban, and rural districts exist?
I think there is only one possible answer - inequity. I am not exactly sure why this major equity issue between schools is so often ignored. Students attending rural schools are not provided the same inherent opportunties as students in suburban schools nor are they provided the supplemental resources normally directed to students going to school in an urban environment.
Why this inequity exists, I cannot tell you. However, I can tell you that many rural districts and schools are still doing wonderful things for kids. Their formula for success is not dissimilar from any other successful school. Working in and around rural school districts for the better part of the last decade, I have found incredibly successful rural districts have the following characteristics:
1) Great People
The quality of a school system simply cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. This is true everywhere, but even more amplified in schools with fewer teachers and higher teacher to student ratios. Imagine a district where one teacher is responsible for teaching every student to read. While every teacher is important in every district, an organization with 20 First Grade classrooms responds differently to one struggling teacher than an organization with only one such classroom.
2) Great Environment for Adults
You keep great people by paying them well or treating them well. In the case of small, rural schools, option one is normally off the table. In order to keep great teachers, the environment and culture must be warm, welcoming, and have a family feel. This is not something that just occurs - culture is built intentionally and through hard work. Not only is this the job of leadership, but more so dependent upon those ‘in the trenches.’ Great schools work hard to ensure they great places to work as well as attend.
There are enough things to complain about when you are understaffed and underfunded to consume all usable energy. Successful schools do not waste their energy bemoaning what they cannot become. Instead, they spend their energy finding ways to provide what they believe is needed to best serve their students.
4) Understand, but not accepting of, Situational Limitations
Every school leader in America thinks about what a difference they could make with just a little more funding. Rural school leaders are no different; however, they understand that the fates are not simply going to change overnight. Moreover, they no their situation will not change simply as a result of ‘hoping’ change occurs. This understanding, however, does not preclude innovation, use of technology, or seeking new partnerships or opportunities to provide what might not be readily accessible for their kids.
You may have noticed that I did not highlight a singular program or initiative when discussing what makes a rural school or district great. That is because there is no singular cure for the issues facing our rural school. The reality is that as a result of inequitable funding structures and lack of awareness rural schools have a significant hill to climb. The only evident cure is within those working for and on behalf of children in rural communities - this is the only sustainable option for long-term school improvement that exists.
Response From Dr. Heidi Pace & Dr. Catherine Beck
Dr. Heidi Pace and Dr. Catherine Beck are superintendent and assistant superintendent, respectively, in Summit School District in Frisco, CO. Summit School District is a rural resort district located high in the Rocky Mountains. They have implemented practices such as the ones described in this blog post to take their district from 89th in the state to 16th. These practices are also chronicled in their latest book, Leading ELL Students to Success: Strategies for Providing Equity and Access for All:
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over half of the school districts in the United States are both poor and rural. Working in such a district can provide many challenges, including offering quality professional development, meeting the staffing needs for all students, giving students the opportunity to engage with current technologies, taking field trips and even addressing the most basic needs for families of poverty.
Considering that professional development is a practice that produces high levels of teacher efficacy and increases in student achievement, it is paramount for districts to be able to offer quality teacher development programs and coursework. Often rural districts are not located near universities or places where resources are readily available for teachers. Rural schools need to leverage the talent within their districts. Using teachers to facilitate professional development and to provide and lead peer coaching will produce strong results. Twitter is another excellent tool that can open the doors for teachers in rural districts to collaborate with other educators in the US and even throughout the world. Rural districts must be creative when thinking about how to increase the interaction for their teachers and give them opportunities to network and learn from others across the nation.
Along with addressing teachers’ needs, meeting the needs of students in rural school districts is a challenge. When students enroll with special needs, for example, the school district may not have the funding to hire additional staff or to purchase specialized equipment. To meet this need, rural districts can partner with other school districts informally or through a Board of Cooperative Services and/or partner with local agencies to close this gap. Grant funds provide another venue for increasing the overall budget. Many grants target rural populations with students of poverty.
It can also be a challenge for any district to keep current with the technology trends today. However, it is imperative to bring technology into the classroom to prepare students for their world today and the future. The students can use the technology to make global connections in ways that include taking virtual field trips, collaborating with classes from other places, and reading the daily news from around the world. Teachers can access the technology to take online courses, subscribe to online newsletters from current authors, and listen to podcasts from other educators in the field. All of the practices that involve technology decrease the isolation that can be felt by both students and staff.
Families in rural areas can also feel a sense of isolation. In order to address this and meet students’ academic needs, educators need to establish a relationship with the family. The quickest way to do this is to conduct home visits. The principal, along with one of the student’s teachers and a translator, when necessary, set up an appointment with each family to come to the home and welcome them to the school community. During the visit, the principal and teacher can share information about the school, talk about computer access, homework expectations, how parents can be involved, the grading system, and so on.
It’s important to convey both how excited the staff is that the student will be a part of the school and that the student will be successful. This visit serves to open the school doors to families who might not otherwise come into the school building. Establishing these practices can level the playing field in meeting the educational needs of rural students.
Response From Jocelyn A. Chadwick
Jocelyn A. Chadwick, PhD is a former professor currently guest lecturing and teaching seminars at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn, Common Core: Paradigmatic Shifts, and Using Literature in the Context of Literacy Instruction. Chadwick currently serves as the vice president of the National Council of Teachers of English and is an expert consultant for and contributor to NBC News Education:
Educating Outside the Traditional Box: What Rural Schools Can Teach the Rest of Us
Today’s successful rural schools are engaged, rigorous, collaborative, decidedly relevant, and community involved. Their students know what they must expect from their education, while parents, educators, and administrators recognize this focus as expected components of any successful school and district. In addition to these existing schools, a growing number of other rural schools are focusing on what they, too, can accomplish on their own initiative, in contrast to “more successful and more moneyed” schools and districts. Risky, yes, but there are some very successful rural districts—particularly those in collaboratives—seizing the initiative, taking control, collaborating with their communities, and seeing relevant progress.
Rural Educational Collaboratives (RES) emerged out of necessity for action and greater instructional success for its students. Battelle for Kids (BFK) addresses the rationale in a report called “Generating Opportunity and Prosperity: The Promise of Rural Education Collaboratives” (2016), citing three socially and economically irresistible catalysts:
The new realities of the global and American economies are decreased rural economic opportunity and increased income inequality.
The failure to properly invest in and protect vital public goods, such as education, make it difficult for many rural communities to survive, let alone thrive.
- Collaborative action through bold leadership is a necessity, not a choice. (2)
Although the collaborative concept is not entirely new, such collaboratives appeared as early as 1986 in Maryland, 1996 in Vermont, and 1994 in Alaska, where the need to address social and economic shifted independently and loomed large. Recognizing these challenges, then-Sec. of Education King initiated conversations with rural education advocacy organizations in July 2016, focusing on challenges and equity for our students in rural districts. Sec. King also continued the conversation with a listening tour—in real and virtual time—focused on the goal: “making sure that the voice of rural education is heard and taken into account as we develop policies, priorities, and program initiatives under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and throughout the Department” (Blog: “How to Serve Rural Schools: Listen”).
Among successful rural schools and collaboratives around the country, North Carolina’s Burke County School District began its collaborative and redesign in 1991-92, starting at the elementary level. Its focus on smaller classrooms at this critical level has brought about significant change in students’ learning experiences. Since 1993, the Vermont Rural Partnership has continued to make instructional relevance and change, relying on fomenting student voice and engagement with project-based learning, place-based learning assessment rubrics, and community heritage.
Alaska’s Kodiak and Chugach counties’ Quality Schools Model aims to engage, retain students PreK-12, and drive academic success within and beyond the classroom. Wyoming’s Ft. Washakie School began as a charter in 2004 and is now a fully accredited public school, serving a rural community. Initially providing online access 24/7, its ongoing mission continues, addressing 21st century students’ needs within the community. All of these schools focus on fomenting a symbiotic educational relationship that benefits everyone, especially teachers and students. There are more, and these vibrant initiatives should and must grow.
What clearly makes these rural schools exceptional and noteworthy is how they accomplish so much, relying on innovative alliances, parental support, and partnerships within their community. Far too often, they do not receive enough attention and commendation. During the past year, I have had the unique privilege of being a part of some amazing schools—urban, rural, suburban. Together, they share common goals: engage the community, acknowledge the presence and import of families, embrace accountability as concomitant with responsibility to all concerned, establish and maintain rigor, teacher prep, relevance, and above all, LISTEN, TALK, COLLABORATE. Theirs is a model from which we can all learn.
Response From Rachael George
Rachael George is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015 and is currently the principal of Sandy Grade School in the Oregon Trail School District. Prior to serving as an elementary school principal, George was a middle school principal of an “outstanding” and two-time “Level 5: Model School,” as recognized by the Oregon Department of Education. She specializes in curriculum development, instructional improvement, working with at-risk students, and closing the achievement gap. Connect with George on Twitter @runnin26:
Some of the best teachers and learning in Oregon comes from some of our most rural and poor districts. Our teachers and students in these districts are used to doing more with less when it comes to resources but they are still required to hit the same target other districts with more support are expected to. While some might balk at this challenge, those within Oregon’s rural areas step up to this challenge because of lack of choice.
Rural districts are all too often faced with the reality that they must fall back and focus on the basics of education, supporting students with behavior, improving attendance in schools, and growing students in the academic arena. When you don’t have the resources to provide elaborate and extensive programs, it makes you focus and reach on what really matters when it comes to educating students.
In the urban setting it often seems as though you are forced to focus on more initiatives, stakeholders, and programs. Working in a poor rural district has its perks as educators wear a variety of hats and are used to rolling up their sleeves to do whatever it takes to get the students to graduation. Instead of passing the buck to the next educator within the system or drawing job description lines, educators within poor rural districts feel that it is everyone’s responsibility to support and advocate for the students. I believe part of this attitude can be attributed to the fact that many of the educators within the districts reside within the same boundaries of the students so they are invested in the community on a different level than those that commute or live outside of the district.
Responses From Readers
My tiny high school in Central Illinois has 170 total students in grades nine through twelve. We have few frills, few vocational programs, few extracurriculars compared to the bigger districts or the consolidated schools.
What we do have is a small staff of very talented teachers who are smart. We concentrate on our academics: reading, writing, mathematics, science, history. We focus our efforts on those areas.
Over 80 percent of our graduates go on to some further type of education, most of them to the community college or a four-year university. A few choose military careers or vocational schools.
Given our population, we concentrate on our strengths: college prep. Do we totally ignore vocational programs? No. Do we focus on them? No. Will our approach work everywhere? No.
Thanks to PJ, Heidi, Catherine, Jocelyn and Rachael, and to readers, for their contributions!
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