The widespread COVID19 news coverage report small and rural school districts’ ineffectiveness in serving rural and disadvantaged students, justifying this position based on a lack of infrastructure to support technology based learning is not reflective of the actualities of innovation seen in many small and rural school districts as they have reacted quicker and more effectively than the majority of their larger, higher resourced peers. Much research and policy has been dedicated to the closure of the Digital Divide to provide more equitable access to technology for our rural students and must continue. The inaccurate assumption that rural and small school districts are stuck in this gap, unable to educate vast numbers of students is not fully accurate, actually depriving other educators of the knowledge that can be gained by agile, community driven, highly invested school districts, many of who are leading the way in technology innovation and digital learning. Reviewing the performance of three very different small school districts demonstrates the strength, vision and innovation occurring in small and rural school districts today.
Amid large district infighting and refusals to engage with students for extended periods while negotiating of special MOU’s prior to participating in teaching students post-school closure, small and rural school districts, nearly without exception, immediately began to serve students and families with a unique type of collaboration and dedication. Students and families in small and rural schools are not being left behind to struggle in isolation as the COVID19 crisis strikes so many ways of life. Recent research from a well-known California research firm showed disturbing lengths of time for larger school districts to engage families in education following the mandatory school shutdown. Very few school districts reported an immediate transition to distance learning (the same day) while others, including several large and wealth California districts have yet to engage with students. Unfortunately, because no small or rural school districts were included in the data set, this analysis is faulty. In truth, many small school districts have utilized technology as a tool to equalize educational opportunity for students most in need for years prior to the pandemic and were able to transition over the weekend for an immediate continuation of learning. Had this study included small and rural school districts in the analysis, many small school districts would have been at the top of the list, supporting students immediately with communication from teachers and leaders, course continuation, and social and emotional support. Transition plans included adaptations to support students in rural areas lacking infrastructure to support the technology and access required for online learning.
With an enrollment of 344 students, 94% below the poverty line, Buttonwillow School District in Kern County, fights to ensure the greatest access and quality for its students with a 1:1 student to computer ratio for the last six years. Superintendent Stuart Packard explains that when they realized the shutdown was coming, more than 100 hotspots were ordered to be distributed in time for every family to have online access. Compared to a national average of 1 in 4 students having made connection with their teacher since school closures, Buttonwillow has achieved 75% ongoing participation, with significant outreach the remaining students. Says Packard, “We prepared our staff and students for the technological transition through technology integration. Our conversations are centered on how our pedagogy can be adapted to best serve our families, including making sure that they are socially and emotionally healthy.”
Even schools that are providing remote learning are struggling to entice their students to attend. Recent national data reports less 25% of students are engaging in their distance learning. California is ranked in the bottom three states for student attendance. Contrast those alarming figures to the 85-90% of families that are engaged and learning in the Placerville Union School District, in Placerville, California, with 58% poverty. Like many other small school districts, the strength of the connection of students and families to their schools when they are part of a small district become a marked advantage. The close working relationships between educators and families bridge many of the gaps faced by larger districts. Says Placerville Superintendent Eric Bonniksen, “We are fortunate to have very talented, dedicated people willing to work through any challenge to be advocates for their students.” Placerville School District had work in place to operate without interruption pending decisions on school closures. Chromebooks, packet-based lessons, and nutritional support was available immediately. In the guise of assistance, schools are being bombarded with special offers that are less than special. Limited time access to technology systems and platforms that trap those schools into a program that may or may not be the correct fit and will likely become a budget concern as the many states face a significant reduction in education funding. Says Bonniksen, “Rather than be distracted by all of the offers of free programming, free access, limited time offers, we have placed a priority on the health and wellness of our students, their families, and our staff. We have a simple, well run program that offers the familiarity of what our classroom learning held for our students, they are in contact regularly with their teachers and school principals. Their nutritional needs are addressed in ways that work well for families, based on their feedback.”
Cold Spring School District in Santa Barbara, a very small basic aid school of 170 student TK6, led by Dr. Amy Alzina, lost no days transitioning to a distance learning program, “The relationship-driven teachers and staff were highly motivated to create highly engaging lessons around the essential standards. The District’s 100% attendance and work completion rate is the direct result of our relationship-driven approach. In fact, many grade-level teachers have started moving to the next grade-level content standards as a result of their students mastering current grade level standards.” Students begin each day at 8:25 with a morning workout session led by Dr. Alzina, then continue through a structured academic day. Feedback from staff, students and families revolve around the intensity of the learning occurring and the progress being witnessed despite what is being called a crisis in learning.
According to Superintendents Packard, Bonniksen and Alzina, the social and emotional impact of isolation and mass amounts of conflicting information are a significant threat to the welfare of our families. All three districts immediately reached out to students, families and staff, including the integration of virtual mental health supports for all students, families and staff. Every communication intentionally focused on the physical, social and emotional well-being of families and staff, emphasizing that academic progress can only be made once these vital needs are met. Tim Taylor, Executive Director of the Small School Districts Association shared, “”Small and Rural School Districts understand that the school is such an integral part of a small-town community. Schools continued serving students within days of closure by providing meals, curriculum packets, devices or simply immediate connections through personal calls. It may not have been perfect but schools felt the personal relationship between the teacher and student is the most critical part of helping families and students get through this pandemic.”
As many reports anticipate a COVID slide, similar to the summer academic slide, small and rural districts are seeing the reverse, predicting a COVIC Climb, enabled by academic focus through the remainder of the school year. In summary, small school districts often have the ability to innovate quicker, with faster results simply due to agility and the closeness that connects small and rural districts to the communities they serve. These academic strides can be replicated on a larger scale because they have been proven effective in a smaller testing ground. Though small and rural school districts face some daunting obstacles, overall, the work of these educators is worthy of notice as our students have achieved what many have considered impossible.