Tag Archives: Education equity

How Much Do You Know About Rural Education? Part 4: Reversing the Teacher Shortage Trend

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

This concludes Dr. Jared Bigham’s four-part series for Ahead of the Heard amplifying issues facing rural school districts, students, and communities. Read the series in its entirety here, here, and here.

My grandfather used to say, “You’ll sit a long time with your mouth wide open before a fried chicken flies in.” So too goes the work of recruiting and retaining rural teachers across our country, as most young or new teachers increasingly pursue jobs in urban and suburban areas. Many rural schools and districts spent considerable resources and time on this issue before the nationwide teacher shortage began in 2009; it’s a challenge that continues to grow with each passing school year. Whether it’s the competition of pay scales, in vogue fusion restaurants, craft breweries, or strip malls offered in urban or suburban areas, rural districts have started relying on grow-your-own models to meet talent needs.

To be clear, there’s a difference in hiring local and hiring local intentionally through grow-your-own talent strategies. Hiring local means you give Johnny a job because he grew up in the community, left and earned a teaching certification, and now wants to move back home to work. This scenario is OK if Johnny is, or has the potential to be, a good educator. But the scenario also represents the double-edged sword of rural human capital plans that hire based on tribalism vs. talent acquisition. The problem arises if Johnny is only a mediocre educator, because in most cases he’ll be in the classroom until he’s ready to retire…or becomes the principal. Unfortunately, this is a common practice in rural schools, whether it’s in response to a sense of loyalty to community members or to the pressing need to fill positions.

Please don’t misunderstand me: it’s not that rural communities can’t or shouldn’t hire local. It’s that the most successful rural schools are meeting their hiring challenges through intentional, proactive strategies of identifying local talent, recruiting that talent through various incentives, and retaining that talent by cultivating their potential as educators. 

A great example of this is Globe Unified School District in Arizona, led by Superintendent Jerry Jennex. As recently as five years ago, his district faced teacher shortages and a high turnover rate before implementing a talent pipeline and retention strategy. His team identified talented, local non-certified staff working in the field of education as paraprofessionals and Head Start workers, and supported them in obtaining a traditional teacher certification through the satellite campus of a partnering university. Globe USD also prioritized alternative licensure pathways, which make up approximately a quarter of its districtwide K-12 teaching staff.

For prospective teachers taking the alternative certification route, Jennex said they, “Identify people that have the knowledge and technical skills; then we help them with the pedagogy side.” “Our district vision statement is Capturing Hearts and Empowering Minds. This is how we approach our recruitment of community members to be teachers. We want them to feel a connection to our district, and we will take care of supporting them on the instruction side,” he added. In addition, Globe USD has an innovative strategy for student teachers they want to keep in the district. The district pays student teachers 50% of a first-year teacher’s salary, covers health insurance, allows them to participate in the state retirement system, and counts their student teaching as one year of service.   

Jennex said they also put just as much effort into retention as they do recruitment. His team wants to support new teachers in “growing into the profession.” As a result, their turnover rates over the past five years have dropped from 25% to single digits. The key to Globe USD’s success? “It’s one of the great things about being in a smaller rural district, we can try innovative things quickly without the bureaucracies of larger, urban districts,” Jennex said.

In addition to serving as Superintendent of Stanfield Elementary School District #24 in rural Arizona, Dr. Melissa Sadorf is part of the U.S. Department of Education School Ambassador Fellowship program. Like many rural district leaders, she competes for talent with surrounding urban and suburban districts that offer much higher pay scales. To combat this, her school district developed an intentional, strategic grow-your-own talent model that takes investing in future teachers to the next level. Sadorf’s district recruits current non-certified staff members and offers to pay for them to complete a credential in education. In exchange, the new teachers commit to teaching in the district for three years. Sadorf says that the strategy has not only been successful in recruiting local talent, but it’s also been successful in retaining that talent. The teachers feel they have invested themselves in the community, and, in turn, the community has invested itself in them. “There is a level of mutual respect because it’s an investment on both sides…the board’s resources and the person’s time and effort,” said Sadorf. 

God loves a normal bell curve, and they’re seen in just about every facet of life where statistics are applied. However, teaching is one area we can’t afford to have a majority of practitioners that are just “average.” We owe students so much more than that. Some of the best rural schools and districts across the country are successfully using grow-your-own strategies to stack the teacher pipeline deck so that the distribution is skewed to the betterment of students and communities. 

Dr. Jared Bigham is a fourth-generation rural educator. He serves as senior advisor on Workforce & Rural Initiatives for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, is board chair of the Tennessee Rural Education Association, and is active in the National Rural Education Association. He is the proud husband to an assistant principal and father of four children.

How Much Do You Know About Rural Education? Part 3: Amplifying Students of Color in Rural America

Photo courtesy of Mary Taylor for Pexels

Dr. Jared Bigham offers a four-part series for Ahead of the Heard that amplifies issues facing rural school districts, students, and communities. He will highlight key challenges, explore innovative partnerships, and dispel rural myths along the way. Read more posts in this series here and here.

Most people’s perception of what constitutes “rural” is based largely on their own geographic location and experiences. If asked what rural education looks like, you’ll often get answers ranging from “Hoosiers” to “Friday Night Lights” to “Remember the Titans”. These are geography- or popular culture-oriented responses, but perceptions of place tend to frame perceptions of people and, more specifically, stereotypes of people.  

Geographic stereotypes do (sometimes unfairly) impact much of our thinking. This certainly holds true for many people’s perceived stereotypical “rural student.” By and large in my experience, people tend to think of rural students as low-income, white kids. So it may come as a surprise to learn that approximately one quarter of rural students are students of color. As of 2017, the rural population breakdown for people of color is 9% Hispanic, 8% Black, 2% American Indian, and 2% identifying as non-white Other. And in the South, 80% of rural African Americans in the U.S. live in the Black Belt, which comprises 623 counties across 11 Southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. 

Rural students from low-income backgrounds face myriad challenges. However, imagine an additional layer of stigmas, stereotypes, and obstacles associated with being a rural student of color. Add to that stereotypes that rural students are somehow inherently behind academically due to the lower-than-average number of residents with postsecondary degrees.  

Despite these pervading stereotypes of rural students, there are amazing examples of collaborative efforts between schools, industry, and postsecondary institutions that are leveraging advances in technology to support rural students of color in overcoming barriers to success in the workforce after high school. 

Take, for example, Charles Henderson High School in Troy, Alabama (population just under 20,000), where a partnership was created with Lockheed Martin for students to begin a pathway that leads to a career after graduation. The majority of the population at Charles Henderson are students of color, with more than half the student body qualifying for free and reduced-price meals. Leveraging technology through TRANSFR VR, a company that specializes in virtual reality training and career exploration, and the partnership with Lockheed Martin, students receive invaluable instruction that would be a challenge under the logistical and financial constraints of a typical high school schedule. Often, it’s a heavy lift for rural school districts to employ an instructor that specializes in industrial careers, and it’s often impossible to afford the commercial equipment needed to teach students. However, by using virtual reality technology and innovative partnerships, Charles Henderson students have access to instruction that would otherwise be out of reach.

To me, the magic in this collaboration are the high expectations set for all of these students. There is no defaulting to stereotypes; there is no acquiescing to statistics; there is no settling for an employment ceiling, which is just a job. Adam Carson, business operations manager at Lockheed Martin emphasizes that this isn’t just about giving students a job. It’s about giving students access to a career, which is the employment floor and place to begin to professionally rise. “It’s a good investment because it meets the needs of the community, and it meets the needs of Lockheed Martin,” according to Carson. 

Another important piece of the Troy-based partnership strategy: the innovation taking place at this school isn’t just for innovation’s sake, and it isn’t a tokenizing campaign to help “poor, helpless Black and Hispanic students.” There’s nothing more degrading we can do in our efforts to support rural students of color than to create benevolent, paternalistic partnerships to “save” them. It’s an affront to students’ dignity, and it feeds into those layered stereotypes. High expectations and working outside the norm of traditional K-12 education models are the most effective ways to overcome the traditional stereotypes of the rural student — stereotypes which in most cases don’t even include students of color.

Dr. Gerri Maxwell, chair of Educational Leadership at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, focuses her work on supporting students of color in rural schools. Maxwell has conducted a great deal of research on the application of systemic strategies in two areas: 1) the benefits of after-school programs for rural students of color with low-income backgrounds, and 2) creating capacity for social justice leadership in rural K-12 schools.  

Maxwell said that students of color in rural communities face challenges that mirror those that students of color in urban areas face. The catch? Rural students experience an additional challenge of geographic isolation. This isolation hampers access to wraparound supports, which is one of the reasons Maxwell has spent a good portion of her career facilitating grant resources to rural communities and researching impact. “You have to be a forceful change agent sometimes to push for support that has been lacking for many of these students,” she said.  

Until students of color are more readily seen as part of the rural narrative, we’re missing a huge opportunity to understand and truly support all rural students.

Dr. Jared Bigham is a fourth-generation rural educator. He serves as senior advisor on Workforce & Rural Initiatives for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, is board chair of the Tennessee Rural Education Association, and is active in the National Rural Education Association. He is the proud husband to an assistant principal and father of four children.

How Much Do You Know About Rural Education? Part 2: Navigating the Digital Chasm

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Dr. Jared Bigham offers a four-part series for Ahead of the Heard that amplifies issues facing rural school districts, students, and communities. He will highlight key challenges, explore innovative partnerships, and dispel rural myths along the way. Read more posts in this series here.

For the past decade, the issue of high-speed connectivity has gained exponential importance but still resides at the edges of most organization strategic plans or at the top of the want list vs. the need list. The pandemic has laid bare inequities that persist with broadband access in small and remote towns across the country, sparking a renewed sense of urgency to address the digital divide.

Rural America is just now coming out of an infrastructure overhaul that focused primarily on getting schools high-speed connections to meet the minimum requirements for online state assessments. A great deal of money and planning has gone into connecting geographically remote and/or financially challenged rural schools for end-of-year testing purposes, with the ancillary benefit of increasing the capacity for learning experiences for students the entire school year. However, even with a monumental push to get rural schools connected, 12 million students across the country were unable to complete schoolwork because they lacked home internet access the year before COVID-19.

When the pandemic hit the U.S., access and opportunity gaps were on stark display in rural communities and the digital divide looked more like a digital chasm. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 on Brown v. Board of Education, it stated that, “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” In the case of rural students’ education during the pandemic, “equal terms” equates to access to high-speed connectivity.

There’s an old saying, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” This embodies the situation many rural districts across the country have found themselves in. Sure, there were many families without high-speed access before the pandemic a Pew study found that 28% of rural homes have no broadband connection at home but it didn’t become an equal terms issue until schools went to full virtual and/or hybrid instruction. If there has been even a millimeter of a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that it forced an expedited set of additional resources and innovative approaches into this space.

For those unfamiliar with rural geography across our country, you might be asking why hotspots weren’t just parachuted into homes like they were in many urban and suburban school districts. The quick answer: primarily because of an area of mountainous topography that blocks cell signals, or an area of flat topography that is too far removed from the nearest cell tower. Rural communities are located in a diverse array of remote terrains.

People often assume that these communities can simply run fiber (or “glass” as we call it in rural areas), to homes with all the state and federal money that has been coming down the pipe. Again, geography is laughing at us. In urban and suburban areas, fiber lines for the most part can be installed in existing infrastructure. In many rural areas, it takes completely new excavation work, and, as one contractor summed it up, “Yeah, you can get glass to run to the end of that road for a million dollars…as long as you don’t hit rock.” 

Despite the many hurdles, rural districts across the country do what they normally do: take a self-reliant approach for stopgap measures and then innovate for long-term solutions. 

A common stopgap measure last spring was to create community hotspots where families could park and connect for students to download and upload assignments as well as participate in virtual instruction. As far as emergency measures go, it’s not a bad scenario. However, it’s tough enough to learn fractions as a kid, doing it virtually from the back seat of a car without heat or air is a recipe for frustration. On top of the other academic challenges that come with being in a low socioeconomic demographic, here is an additional stressor like none before.   

Eventually, districts started pushing into new areas of innovation, and companies, nonprofits, and other organizations started collaborating to address the issue head-on. One company, Learning Blade, designed a free app for its resources called Learning Blade Backpack that allows students to access robust STEM and Career and Technical Education resources at home by downloading information and assignments when they connect to a hotspot, and then uploading their work at a later date when they next connect. 

A few months ago, Amy Polanowski spoke about the stress her rural, unconnected students felt and how she utilized Backpack to help. Polanowski teaches middle school in Sullivan, Missouri and has been using the Backpack app since last Fall. “Students without internet connection at home stress over being able to complete work on time,” she said. “With the Backpack app, they can download their mission and work anywhere at any time, which helps relieve that stress. Giving intermittent access to connectivity isn’t enough. Students need to be able to also leverage time to learn when they are not connected.” 

Sheila Boyington, CEO of Learning Blade characterized the app as an “equity play. “At the beginning of COVID-19, we knew the digital divide was only going to get bigger. No matter how much stimulus came out, it would take time to have connectivity at all homes,” she said.

Understanding that bringing connectivity to all rural families won’t happen overnight is a common perspective across these communities. Wes Brownfield is executive director of the Arizona Rural Schools Association and superintendent of Chevelon Butte Elementary School District. “I knew the need was not going to be something we could work on incrementally. Strategies would have to be operationalized now,” said Brownfield. To that end, he helped organize The Final Mile Project, a collaborative effort to bring high-speed connectivity to rural families across seven Arizona school districts by leveraging joint resources. “We had a broadband superhighway to our schools but getting internet into homes amounted to tin cans and string in many cases,” according to Brownfield. 

As is common when creating connectivity infrastructure in rural communities, economy of scale becomes an issue. The smallest number The Final Mile Project is working on connects six families in one area, and the largest connects 55 families. These numbers combined would be less than most apartment complexes or a single subdivision in urban and suburban areas, which creates challenges when vying for grant dollars. “Granular successes will eventually aggregate to real change,” according to Brownfield, summing up his team’s pragmatic approach to bridging the digital divide.

These are just some of the ways rural districts are attacking the digital chasm, but there many other examples of rural district innovation, including datacasting, building cell towers on school property, installing micro cell towers, and using the Citizens Broadband Radio Service. No matter the strategy, what shines through across rural communities and school districts is a fierce self-reliance to tackle problems and come up with innovative solutions. “If you’re willing to take the long view and dedicate yourself to internet equity, you can get almost anything done as long as you don’t care who cuts the ribbon,” said Brownfield, summing things up in clear terms.

Dr. Jared Bigham is a fourth-generation rural educator. He serves as senior advisor on Workforce & Rural Initiatives for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, is board chair of the Tennessee Rural Education Association, and is active in the National Rural Education Association. He is the proud husband to an assistant principal and father of four children.

Media: “Boston schools achievement gap remains wide along racial lines — a troubling sign” in Boston Herald

In February, Bellwether published “An Uneven Path: Student Achievement in Boston Public Schools 2007-2017.” Boston was in the midst of a leadership transition, and we advised the next superintendent to make tough choices in support of equity. Last week, the Boston School Committee chose Dr. Brenda Cassellius, former state superintendent in Minnesota, as the district’s next leader.

Chad Aldeman and I recently spoke to the Boston Herald about the findings in our report, and the challenges Dr. Cassellius will face in her new role:

“Black and Hispanic students have not been making enough progress,” said Chad Aldeman, senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit that recently student achievement in Boston Public Schools, “It’s a troubling sign.”

BPS risks losing its status as a national leader in urban K-12 education if it doesn’t launch innovative strategies to address flattening testing scores, the experts added. “If they want Boston to continue to be a stronger-than-average district, they have to focus on black, Hispanic, and low-income students,” said Bonnie O’Keefe, an associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners.

Bellwether board member Paul Reville also weighed in on Boston’s achievement gaps:

“It’s clearly a major challenge for Boston moving forward,” said Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Paul Reville, a former Massachusetts secretary of education. “They still have a long way to go.”

For more detail on Boston Public Schools’ progress and performance in the past ten years, take a look at “An Uneven Path.” Or read the full Boston Herald piece here.

Straight Talk for City Leaders on Unified Enrollment: A Q&A with Shannon Fitzgerald

In many cities across the country, school application and enrollment processes are built like high-stakes obstacle courses, where families with the most time and resources at their disposal tend to come out on top. A unified enrollment system is one way that cities with broad school choice have tried to level the playing field, and make enrollment processes less burdensome and more equitable for families. In cities like D.C., Denver, and New Orleans that have unified enrollment systems, families submit a single application and rank the charter and district schools of their choice. Then each student is matched to a single school via an enrollment algorithm.

These systems can decrease inequities by making enrollment processes for families easier to accomplish and harder to “game,” maximizing students’ likelihood of getting into their top choice schools. Unified enrollment can also decrease budget instability for schools caused by unexpected enrollment changes in the beginning of the year. For city leaders, data from unified enrollment systems can reveal important lessons about family demand for specific schools or programs. But that does not mean there are no risks, speed bumps, or potential problems. There is a lot that has to happen behind the scenes to create an enrollment system that meets families’ needs and avoids unintended consequences.

Shannon Fitzgerald knows what it takes to implement a lasting unified enrollment system. She was one of the first in the country to do it as the Director of Choice and Enrollment for Denver Public Schools from 2008-2013. Now, as an enrollment systems consultant, she works with other cities and districts who are interested in reforming their enrollment systems. I talked with her recently about the lessons she’s learned along the way and her advice for city leaders.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you define a unified enrollment system? What differentiates unified enrollment from other enrollment approaches?

I think about enrollment systems as a spectrum. On one end, you have “wild west” systems. Nothing is coordinated: families have to go all over the place and apply to each school individually, and there are different deadlines. You have students enrolled in multiple schools — who knows where they will show up in September? On the other end, you have truly unified enrollment systems like Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans. They include all public schools in the city, district and charter; they have common tools, a common timeline, and a common application; and every student gets matched to a single school of their choice. In between those two ends of the spectrum are about 50,000 different variations.

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