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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Rural Schools May Be the ‘Epicenters’ of Their Towns

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 29, 2017 13 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What are successful poor rural districts doing and how do they accomplish their mission?

The challenges facing urban schools and districts are often in the news. We don’t hear as much about the issues facing rural districts and schools, especially those in low-income areas.

This two-part series will discuss what successful rural districts are doing to support students, families and teachers.

Today, Silvia Ibarra, Amanda Koonlaba, Jennifer Hesseltine, and Rita Platt share their experiences. 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.

Response From Silvia Ibarra

Sylvia Ibarra is a life-long educator with 27 years of experience in public education. Currently she is a school principal at Jackson Elementary in McAllen, TX, a Title I school serving 800 students:

Title I schools face many challenges in educating at-risk students - whether in an urban, suburban, or rural area. Closing the achievement gap is no easy task and success requires effective practices, support and collaboration from all stakeholders--families in particular-- to help students reach their fullest potential. All schools can make significant strides toward supporting the various needs of students by maximizing available resources around reading instruction and family engagement.

First, targeted and differentiated instruction that supports the needs of struggling students will result in improved student achievement (Watts-Taffe, et al., 2012). Teachers and administrators must also work together to find time during the school day to allow students to receive supplemental support in areas of academic need and to provide extended learning opportunities, which keep students learning beyond the school day.

Equally important is independent reading. Teachers must make independent reading a priority in their classrooms while also encouraging students to read at home. Children between the ages of 10 and 16 who read for pleasure make more progress in vocabulary, spelling, and math than those who rarely read (Sullivan & Brown, 2013). Hence, independent reading is simply a common sense, effective practice for all students.

Support from and collaboration with families is also essential to student success. Schools can actively engage parents in their children’s learning by creating a welcoming and supportive environment for families. Encouraging parents to volunteer at school and participate in school events is a great entre for increasing parental involvement. In addition, schools must take every opportunity to inform parents about research-based strategies that help them support their children’s academic success. Practices such as maintaining open lines of communication with teachers, ensuring children complete their homework, and reading at home for 20 minutes per day are just a few best practices. Furthermore, implementing programs that facilitate reading at home is hugely beneficial. And then, of course, communicating these resources to families.

At my campus, for example, we implement Scholastic’s 20 for 20 Family Reading Challenge one month prior to the administration of the state assessments. As part of the program, students and parents commit to reading at home for 20 minutes for at least 20 consecutive days by signing a pledge and completing a daily reading log. It is a great motivator for students and parents alike while reinforcing the literacy skills found on the state assessments.

We reinforce reading at home again when summer nears. We start motivating students to read over break by signing them up to participate in the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge and sending home details and tips on how to keep the momentum going all summer. The entire staff and student body get very excited about this challenge and take it very seriously. All summer long, students log their minutes either online or on a paper log and as a matter of fact, my campus has won the challenge twice! Just last year we collectively logged 21,285,863 minutes. I love the motivation given to my school through the competition and school-wide excitement of winning, but more importantly, I love that my students maintain or improve their reading skills at a time when most students experience a reading skill loss.

As Title I schools continue to explore and implement effective strategies to close the achievement gap and ensure success for all, it is important to remember that literacy is foundational and families play an important role. Thankfully, there are many free resources available to teachers, administrators and families to make learning fun and to support student achievement.

Response From Amanda Koonlaba

Amanda Koonlaba, Ed.S., NBCT, is a teacher, artist, and writer. She is a member of the 2015 class of ASCD Emerging Leaders. Follow her on Twitter @akoonlaba:

First of all, I want to be clear that the definition of “successful” can be arbitrary. There have been many attempts to define a school’s success by assigning some sort of accountability rating, which is usually heavily weighted on test scores. I don’t think test scores alone give a complete picture of a school’s success. There are many other factors in defining success, which is where I derive my answer to this question.

In Mississippi, there are a number of successful schools that do not necessarily have the highest accountability ratings assigned from the state. These are schools that are beloved by their communities and stakeholders. These schools act as the epicenter of their towns, the glue that holds the neighborhoods together. Many of these schools are in extremely poor districts in rural areas. These schools are accomplishing the mission of serving their communities by providing an education to students that is rich in the arts. They have partnered with the Mississippi Whole Schools Initiative, which offers funding to meet four goals: Arts Integration, Arts Disciplinary Instruction, Professional Learning, and Community Involvement.

So, these successful poor rural schools and districts are partnering with a state agency and providing an education rich in the arts to meet the needs of their students and to ultimately accomplish their mission. This is important because our poorest students so often do not have access to the arts outside of their schools. Providing this access is one thing that connects the schools so strongly to the communities they serve and is a major indicator of success in my opinion.

Response From Jennifer Hesseltine

Jennifer Hesseltine teaches U.S. History at the Malone Middle School in Malone, New York. Jennifer teaches on a cross-curricular team of 8th grade teachers in a 1:1 technology setting, prompting students to engage with the content of the course in a student-centered, hands-on classroom environment. Jennifer is a member of the TED-Ed Innovative Educator program, and recently presented a workshop at TED Summit 2016 entitled, Global Speed Chat. Jen can be found hosting and participating in the weekly Bammy Award winning #TEDEdChat on Twitter. Connect with Jennifer on Twitter @jenhesseltine:

It usually happens that when I travel to education conferences (or, just travel in general), and I tell others that I am from New York...they automatically assume New York City. I mean, why wouldn’t they? After all, it’s New York City! The explanation that follows usually includes a geography lesson about New York State. Malone is a small, rural town located in northeastern New York-about a 7-hour drive to New York City (depending on traffic). Still not sure? We are approximately 15 miles south of the Canadian border (much closer to Montreal than New York City), and 52 miles north of Lake Placid, New York (home of the 1932 & 1980 Winter Olympic Games).

Malone is a rural community that hosts Malone Central School District-a successful rural school district with a mission that is achieved by focusing on 3 main goals: to provide students with engaging classrooms, in an environment that is socially and emotionally safe, guided by data-driven instruction. Trust me, in a region of the world with little industry and limited non-public resources, providing a successful education program can be a challenge. Yet, with limited resources, this district hosts many of the same programs that you might find in an urban educational setting-an outstanding music program, a focus on mindfulness, Project Based Learning (PBL) opportunities at every level, and the incorporation of educational technology as a tool to foster learning.

How do we do it? Our recipe for success includes an intelligent and careful allocation of the resources that are available to us. This includes an educational board of directors who are community-focused; administrative leadership willing to release the reigns; a strong community of educators who are willing to think outside the box to reach students in diverse and innovative ways; and of course, kids. We have kids who crave learning! It takes a team effort, guided by an administration that encourages teacher-led pilot programs, student-generated clubs, community collaboration, and connections to educators and educational programs far and wide. When they say, “It takes a village...” they mean it!

The next time you are at a conference, and you hear someone mention that he/she is from a rural school district, keep in mind, that person may come from a community of administrators and educators who thoughtfully allocate limited resources to provide an innovative educational program to reach kids. If you are reading this from corporate America, remember that rural America hosts outstanding educational communities, preparing American youth with the skills and work ethic required of our global workforce of the future. So, the next time you are looking to partner with a school or district, remember that miles away from a major city in any state across America is a rural school district poised for collaboration and success.

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a Nationally Board Certified teacher and a proud #EduDork!. Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergarten to graduate student. She currently is a Library Media Specialist for the St. Croix Falls SD in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute , consults with local school districts, and writes for We Teach We Learn:

Poor districts in rural areas of the country have unique strengths and equally unique challenges. I have been lucky to teach and live in a rural district for the last six years. Together, my principal, colleagues, and I have worked to bring success to our students.

Who We Are:

St. Croix Falls Elementary, in rural Wisconsin, has always been a “good” school. Sadly, the number of students effected by poverty continues to rise. We are Title 1 designated with approximately 50% of our students living below the poverty line. Despite our changing demographics, our levels of achievement have risen each year. We are now a school that has “exceeded expectations” on state measures for the last three years. Finding this level of success took time, hard work, and a focused vision.

Our Vision:

We started with a simple vision, all students are deserving of instruction and other support that allows them to make a year’s growth in a year’s time in reading, writing, and math. Three core beliefs grounded our vision:

  1. Teachers are smart, capable professionals who can be trusted. Programs might be helpful but are not the answer in and of themselves.

  2. Students are the primary stakeholders in their learning, and must own their growth. Allowing students voice, choice, and a system for setting their own learning goals is critical to success.

  3. Strong, but shared, leadership is essential. Teachers need to feel vital to reaching our goals.

What We Did:

We identified two simple changes that would pay big dividends: strengthening data-informed teaching and empowering students to become self-monitoring learners. To inform our work we looked at three lines of research:

  1. John Hattie’s work on visible learning
  2. Mike Schmoker’s amazing article on the demystification of data analysis.

  3. The latest research on motivation theory.

We leveraged what we learned to help students set goals and worked as their coaches to help them successfully meet them. We learned to ask new questions that continually lead us back to our vision. For example rather than asking that tired question, “How did this year’s 4th grade class do compared with last year’s?” we asked:

  • How did a Maria do this time, compared with last time?

  • How did this year’s 3rd grade class do compared with their performance in 2nd grade?

  • How did last quarter’s group of struggling readers do this quarter?

  • What type of instruction is best for Johnny?

  • Did Neveah meet her goals? Why or why not?

As we answered these questions, we remained steadfast in our belief that all students could and should make a year’s growth in a year’s time and we problem-solved student-by-student, class-by-class, and as a whole school to make it happen.

What We Didn’t Do:

We didn’t buy new programs, hire consultants, drastically overhaul the school, play the blame game, or feel intimidated by the data.

What We Suggest:

  1. Read the links embedded in this post.

  2. Decide on your own vision. Make it one that is actually useful, not the gobbledy-gook type found on most districts’ webpages.

  3. Begin to collect meaningful and frequent data and use Schmoker’s methods to analyze it.

  4. Involve students in looking at their growth and setting goals to move ahead.

  5. Start from a stance of kindness. Assume best intentions. Be patient.

For more on our school’s journey, see our article in Educational Leadership, How One School Defied Gravity.

Thanks to Silvia, Amanda, Jennifer and Rita for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.