Category Archives: Rural Education

Want to Bring Equity to Rural Schools? Start With Ed Tech Infrastructure

Last month, EdWeek published a Q&A with education technology experts discussing the future of technology use in classrooms. Their comments echoed what I learned during my teacher training: data-driven instruction is essential for student growth, and ed tech is the key to delivering quality, personalized learning.

Yet what many of those experts failed to mention is that the best learning technology is only successful if the basic infrastructure is in place — and for rural students, this lack of infrastructure has turned into a technology equity gap.

One in five students attends school in a rural district, where teachers often lack access to reliable internet and hardware. Rural schools located in low-socioeconomic communities struggle to provide teachers and students with updated technology. When teachers are able to introduce ed tech into the classroom, the new devices are often not supported with necessary broadband or storage improvements.

Two of my 4th grade students collaborating in the computer lab.

I saw this firsthand as a rural educator in South Carolina, where frequent computer failures made it nearly impossible to implement technology-enabled personalized learning. In my former school district, using ed technology wasn’t just suggested — for many classes, it was required. Each week, my class went to the computer lab to work on a literacy program purchased by the school. When the computers worked, the program was a hit — it allowed my students to advance at their own pace and to focus on personalized standards and skills.

Each time we visited the lab, however, a new problem emerged: often, the internet didn’t work at all. If the internet worked, then half of the desktops were down. Sometimes we’d make it all the way through the login stage before the desktops began crashing, and I’d watch as a sea of hands flew up around the room. After five failed visits, I quit going to the lab completely.

One-to-one iPad programs and community-wide internet may be part of ed tech’s future, but for my former students, it is far from a working reality. And this isn’t just a rural issue: students and teachers in some underserved urban communities also lack the necessary tech infrastructure.

Some districts are taking on this infrastructure challenge: one county in rural Virginia is building a DIY broadband network that will bring internet access to schools and homes in remote areas of the district. Other districts are increasing their broadband capability through the federal government’s E-Rate program, which allows rural schools to apply for technology infrastructure funding. Efforts like these demonstrate that improving a school’s tech infrastructure is a possibility for all schools, regardless of location.

As the new school year approaches, principals and administrators will continue looking for ways to bring ed tech into classrooms. While their efforts are valuable, I challenge these leaders to consider if their schools have the necessary technology capability — and if not, how they will first build a working infrastructure to benefit students and teachers alike.

All children deserve the opportunity for personalized learning, but until underserved students receive the same basic access as their more affluent peers, the tech equity gap will continue to widen.

ICYMI: Recapping Bellwether’s School Transportation Event

This week, Bellwether released a new report, “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century.” The report analyzes the current state of school transportation from multiple perspectives, including efficiency, educating students, and environmental impact.

In conjunction with the report’s release, we hosted an event at Union Station’s Columbus Club. The event, moderated by Bellwether Partner and Co-Founder Andrew Rotherham, featured a great lineup of panelists with decades of experience in the school transportation sector:

  • Cindy Stuart, Hillsborough County (FL) School Board member and voting member of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization
  • Mike Hughes, Assistant Director of Transportation at Boston Public Schools
  • Joel Weaver, Director and Principal of Chief Tahgee Elementary Academy (CTEA), a Shoshoni language immersion charter school located on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in southeast Idaho
  • Kristin Blagg, Research Associate in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute, focusing on education policy

The discussion focused on issues that affect school districts across the country — the cost of running buses with empty seats, approaches to providing service to charter schools and other schools of choice, integration of school transportation with public transit systems, and conversion to buses powered by alternative fuels like propane.

Following the event, attendees were shuttled to various parts of the city in — of course — a yellow school bus!

Every day nearly 500,000 school buses transport more than 25 million students to and from school. That fleet of school buses is more than twice the size of all other forms of mass transit combined — including bus, rail, and airline transportation. And yet, it has remained largely unchanged for more than 50 years. As districts continue to grapple with tightening budgets, rising costs, declining ridership, and the ever-changing way in which schools enroll and serve students, school transportation will continue to play an important part in federal, state, and local policy decisions.

To learn more, read the full report, and watch the archived video of the event below.

Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century

We're talking school transportation this morning at Union Station with a great panel! Check out our new report, "Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century." bit.ly/bellwetherbus

Posted by Bellwether Education Partners on Tuesday, May 2, 2017

 

Join Us May 2nd at Union Station (with a Yellow Bus!)

The largest system of mass transit in the U.S. isn’t the airline industry. Nor is it trains, or city buses, or even all those things combined. The largest mass transit system in America is made up of the nearly 500,000 school buses transporting students to and from school each day.

Despite innovations in technology, developments in clean fuels, and big changes to the way schools work in many communities, in most places, school transportation operates much as it has for decades.

But should it?

On May 2nd, Bellwether will host a discussion of the role of transportation in education, its many challenges, and some innovations and possible solutions. We hope you’ll join us at Union Station in Washington, D.C. for a light breakfast at 8:45, followed by a lively discussion. At the end of the event, for that dose of nostalgia, we’ll even take you back to work on a yellow school bus!

Seating limited, RSVP today.

The discussion, moderated by Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham, will feature:

  • Cindy Stuart, District 3 representative on the Hillsborough County, Florida school board since 2012, and current board chair. She also represents the school board as a voting member of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization, the federally-established transportation planning body for the Tampa metropolitan area. This cooperative relationship between the school district and the broader regional transportation planning infrastructure is unique across the country and holds promise for a more coordinated approach to meeting the needs of communities and schools.
  • Mike Hughes, Assistant Director of Transportation at Boston Public Schools (BPS). BPS provides transportation to district, charter, and private schools in the Boston area — navigating a complex cross-sector system of education. Facing escalating costs and other pressures, the district has taken innovative steps to address significant challenges.
  • Joel Weaver, Director of the Chief Tahgee Elementary Academy (CTEA), a charter school located on the Fort Hall Reservation, owned by the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, in rural southeastern Idaho. CTEA serves students dispersed over a large geographic area, representative of the challenges many rural schools face in transporting students in safe, efficient, and cost-effective ways.
  • Kristin Blagg, a research associate in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC, where she focuses on education policy. She recently co-authored “Student Transportation and Educational Access” with Senior Fellow Matthew Chingos, a paper that explores the role of student transportation in school choice, profiling five choice-rich cities.

We rarely discuss school transportation, but its impact reverberates through the entire school system — raising issues of educational equity, student safety, cost-effectiveness, and environmental impact. Please join us as we explore these issues.

Rural Communities Don’t All Agree on the End Goal of Public Education

Should schools push all students to go to college or are alternatives like career and technical education (CTE) appropriate? The debate is far from settled. As the “college for all” mantra has taken hold over the last decade, CTE has gotten a bad rap as a dumping ground for underachieving kids. But critics of “college for all” point out that, done well, CTE can motivate students and help them build skills needed in the labor market. Nowhere is this debate more salient than in America’s rural schools.

For a recent report, Voices from Rural Oklahoma, Juliet Squire and I spent two weeks traveling throughout Oklahoma, conducting focus groups with members of rScreen Shot 2017-02-22 at 3.12.57 PMural communities across the state. We covered a lot of ground in these conversations, touching on issues like education funding, high school students’ course options, post-high school opportunities, and school consolidation. In each and every focus group, participants conveyed uncertainty and disagreement about what Oklahoma’s rural schools ought to be preparing students to do once they graduate.

In some cases, aversion to “college for all” was rooted in fear — fear that sending kids away to school would mean they wouldn’t return home, thus hurting their communities. There is evidence that suggests this does happen, that it is often the best and brightest that leave rural areas, leaving behind those with less education who are less prepared to help their communities prosper. A participant in one of our focus groups explained it this way: “If you drive them to college, they may have to go to Kansas City…You know, you’re setting them up to go away [rather than] return and develop our economy.”

Other participants’ views about about the necessity of higher education were shaped by the realities of their communities. We heard many stories about families who needed a welder or a plumber or an electrician — but none exist in their communities. In others, high school graduates working in the oil fields or wind farms were able to make a real, living wage without higher education. One participant told us: “A large percentage of our kids need to have a trade — be it carpentry, welding, plumbing, heat and air — ‘cause I know in our area, we don’t have enough of any of those.”

But these stories were far from universal. We also heard from parents desperate to send their kids to college, a desire stemming from their own struggle securing employment. One participant told us his story:

Just from my experience, I’ve been a welder for 16 years. I’m currently unemployed because of the market falling, bottom falling plum out of it. My boy, since he was big enough to follow me around, was putting my welding hood on. And I tell him, “You better get an education.” […] My dad grew up doing construction. I grew up doing welding. That’s no longer — not going to be available for very much longer. So education is very high and especially with us, you know, I’m telling my kids, “You got to get an education. You got to go to college.”

The economic realities of rural communities have changed significantly in recent decades, and in Oklahoma they fluctuate with the volatility in oil and gas markets. Community members may know well what skills and education credentials are necessary to get a job in their small town. But they have less information about what is needed to be employable in a different city or state, and even less understanding of the skills and knowledge that will be needed ten years from now.

Thankfully, rural communities don’t need to choose between “college for all” and high-quality CTE. Instead, state policymakers, business leaders, and education leaders can work together to help students and families understand and navigate their options. This includes listening to and accounting for the perspectives of students and parents, as we sought to do in our report. But it also involves a broader understanding of where the economy is, where it’s headed, and what skills and education will be necessary for students to thrive. With thoughtful coordination among the various actors and decision-makers in rural communities, students and families can be better positioned to make informed decisions about their educations and careers.

Finding and Financing Facilities Remains a Barrier for Idaho Charter Schools

Finding and financing school facilities continues to be a major barrier for charter schools. Many states have created programs to help ease the burden, including loan programs, per-pupil facilities allocations, and provisions to help charters access unused facilities.

But no state has fully equalized facilities access for charter schools. Idaho is no exception.

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 4.45.23 PMIn a new report, Juliet Squire and I present the results of a survey of Idaho’s charter school leaders. We asked charter leaders about their facilities-related expenditures, and what amenities (like auditoriums, gyms, and libraries) their facilities have. We then collected data points like the square footage and seat capacity of schools’ current facilities.

These data enabled us to quantify the stark discrepancy in access to state and local facilities funding sources between district and charter schools. On average, districts have access to approximately $1,445 per pupil of state and local funding. Charter schools get less than one-quarter this amount: $347.

Organizations like Building Hope and foundations like the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation (a Bellwether client) have helped close this gap for some charter schools. Others have been able to access tax-exempt bonds through the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. And the state has recently enacted a debt reserve fund and a small per-pupil facilities allocation (about $335 this year). Even so, most charter schools rely heavily on their per-pupil funds to cover facilities-related expenses.

The data from our survey suggest that, despite these avenues for facilities funding, accessing financing remains a major barrier to securing an adequate facility. Moreover, charter leaders struggle to find property suitable for their school, and often have to make significant tradeoffs — like forgoing a gymnasium or using cheaper materials to build. When facilities are inadequate, charter leaders indicate that it is difficult to provide the educational programming they envision for their students.

But perhaps the most telling finding is that, despite the financial constraints they face, charter leaders are doing extraordinary work securing facilities for their schools. In fact, they are able to build schools at a fraction of what traditional school districts spend. Continue reading