When it comes to serving schools across rural America, it’s important to remember that no two rural communities are alike. From the remote fishing villages in Alaska, to the sugar maple towns of Vermont, to the American Indian reservations in Montana, America’s rural communities are incredibly diverse. Nationwide, rural America contains over 70 percent of our landmass, one-third of our schools, and 59 million Americans, according to the 2010 Census. In addition to the need for the same educational opportunities as urban and suburban students, we recognize the unique challenges faced by many, if not most rural students: high rates of childhood poverty, limited health care, fewer career opportunities, isolation from basic services, as well as schools that don’t have the necessary transportation, technology, teachers, courses, and resources to provide students with a truly 21st century education they deserve.
Understanding the diversity of rural schools across our country was made clear in a conversation earlier this month between Secretary King and leaders of rural education advocacy organizations about the struggles rural schools face. As part of our commitment to ensuring equity and excellence for every student in the implementation of this new law, the Department of Education (ED) is committed to understanding how best to meet the needs of rural stakeholders. We are focused on 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.
This initial dialogue will continue over the next few months with ED hosting listening sessions (virtually and in-person) in rural locations across the country to hear the concerns of those in our rural areas. The feedback received in these sessions will inform us as we conduct a rurally-focused review of the Department, as required under Title V of ESSA. Our review will consider how the Department currently solicits and receives input, and addresses the needs of rural schools in our programs, policies, and organizational structure. We will identify actions ED can take to increase participation of rural schools in our policy-making efforts, and better serve rural schools in the future. The listening sessions will help ensure that our review includes specific recommendations from actual rural voices: the people who know the needs of rural schools better than anyone else.
We recognize that certain obstacles can stop rural districts from fully utilizing federal resources, or applying for grants that can help students succeed. Rural communities face diverse and unique challenges, and are not always well-served by traditional education systems and processes. We heard that the lack of a common definition of “rural” contributes to the confusion about which communities and school districts are eligible for federal funds available across multiple agencies. Rural schools often lack dedicated staff to simply apply for grants, even those that contain specific rural priorities. We acknowledge that simplifying applications and collaborating with other federal agencies to streamline the process for schools is critical to increasing participation and buy-in from our rural communities.
We greatly appreciate the efforts of rural advocates in Washington, DC and across the country who have already met and spoken with us about these issues. We look forward to continuing the conversation, and welcome any and all feedback.
If you are interested in sharing input or hearing more about our efforts to engage rural communities, please feel free to contact us at: Rural@ed.gov.
Lucy Johnson is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.
A trim hiker in black shorts and a blue sleeveless shirt stands atop a mountain, her arms raised in victory. This image literally headlines Eva Gregg’s digital eWolf portfolio. That’s her in the picture.
“I am a hiker!” she says emphatically to a small group of Alaska Native elders and community workers. “This is important to me. At one time, I weighed 252 pounds.” Later in her portfolio, she writes, “I never thought in all my life that I would be conquering mountains….”
In fact, Wolverine Peak, a 10-mile hike that takes Eva eight hours, is her favorite endeavor. But highly popular Flat Top eluded her for a long time. The last steep section to the summit terrified her, she said. Yet, after watching two disabled hikers and a toddler skitter up, she managed it. “There are no excuses,” she says, laughing heartily.
Kotzebue-born and raised, now age 49, Eva is the mother of four and a UAA college student. Flashing pages of her digital portfolio on a large screen, she demonstrated the different ways she has used this new tool to tell her own story, including her battle against obesity.Identifying the Elements of Digital Storytelling
Just moments before, Sheila Randazzo, transition advisor for Native Student Services, and Paul Wasko, coordinator for UAA’s ePortfolio initiatives, had teamed up to set the stage for what Eva’s audience was about to see. They hoped this gathering of wise and caring community members could hear the power in Eva’s digital storytelling. And they hoped this group might help shape and frame this new tool—a Native cultural identity ePortfolio—for UAA’s indigenous students to “understand and record their journey of becoming aware of who they are,” as Randazzo explained.
Specifically, the NSS team requested writing prompts from the community members to help students begin their ePortfolios and digitally document their identity journeys. As Wasko told them: “These are like chapters in a book. A blank page can be intimidating. But if this is my electronic book, I need a chapter on knowledge, on the physical, the emotional. Instead of financial, we might say ‘provider.’ Can you give these students prompts for what needs to go on those pages?”
“We need your wisdom,” added diversity expert Tommy Woon. “This is a partnership with the community. We don’t want to see it contained here, just on campus. Everything is connected. We are your servants and you are our board of directors.”
Woon has been visiting and informally advising NSS as it works to develop the identity-relevant ePortfolio. He has worked a lifetime encouraging diversity at Stanford, Dartmouth and now Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired institution in Boulder, CO.Liberating Native Students Through Digital Age Tools
One of the disparities Woon said he is sensitive to is seeing minorities left behind in the wake of major technological change. As he told the elders and community workers gathered, “We have had the agricultural age, the industrial age, the technological age. Now we are in the digital age. Whenever new technology comes along, it can deepen the gap between the haves and the have-nots, leaving them further behind.”
Instead, he challenged, “Why not use it for liberation work? Young people doing digital work get more computer- and digital-literate. They can develop it and use it to get jobs.”
And they can use it to explore and understand their cultural identity. Woon’s own Korean/Japanese family experienced historical trauma dating back to World War II. “It is very personal to me,” he said. “The sting of discrimination is still public in Japan.”
He envisions Alaska villages with their own ePortfolios. “Their stories can be archived. They don’t have to rely on oral history. This can be their digital oral history. It can promote belonging, and point the way to resources when needed.”
From his days working at Stanford, Woon knows Helen Chen, director of that campus’s ePortfolio initiative and a premier researcher in the field. She wanted Woon’s take on how this tool could best be used by minority students. From all his work in diversity, Woon quickly imagined concentric circles: self, family, community, traditions, ceremony and the environment. “Have the students explore how they came to be through those things. Let them interview their elders, do their own research, and in those ways define themselves and document their journey,” he told Chen.ePortfolios Capture a More Complete Story of the Person
Wasko worked in Minnesota when the state decided to scale the ePortfolio concept. Every resident could have one. The goal was a kind of K-20 education-to-career personal learning tool and map.
The goal: “If I am a student, how do I emerge from college into a job?” he said. “Or, if I am laid off, how do I track my way through getting more education so I can cycle successfully back into the work world.”By Revealing Your Story, You Help Yourself and Help Others
Eva’s ePortfolio is a window into how a truly authentic voice can emerge in a digital environment, and how she is able to capture so much more than her grades or job history. Her writing expresses personal validation for her successes, and honest acknowledgement of her obstacles and challenges.
Her opening page, called ‘My Path,’ addresses pivotal moments in her life. That time in fifth grade when she finally stood up to four class bullies. Her first alcoholic blackout in seventh grade. And the moment, 30 years later, when she publicly admitted, ‘Hi, my name is Eva … and I need help.’ She’s been sober and clean since December 2009.
Decembers are big months for her, her story reveals. The very next one, in 2010, her best friend and the father of her daughter died. “I thought I would relapse…but I did not which surprised me.”
She now plans different ePortfolios for different audiences: one for scholarship applications, one for job applications, one for family. Her mountain climbing story isn’t the only one that reveals her grit and determination.
After two years in college, she has plenty of papers and math tests under her belt. “I love math, don’t get me wrong. It really makes me think. But it’s time-consuming and hard.”
What does she do when she gets stuck on a problem? “I watch YouTube videos on algebra, for hours. I watch the videos and then I go back to the problem.” Only after exhausting all ideas and resources—from the videos to her class notes to the book’s explanation, does she resort to asking for help. She might post the problem on Facebook, and query her several math-savvy cousins: “I am stumped guys,” she writes. “Show me step one. “What’s Next?
In December 2012, Eva wrote in ‘My Path,’ standing at her sink washing dinner dishes, she wondered how and why she’d managed to survive three decades of alcohol, drugs “and the trauma that goes hand in hand with that lifestyle.” She decided, then and there, that she would spend her life supporting any addict willing to work as hard as she has for her sobriety. She’s aiming for social work and human services degrees.
“I want to help people like me,” she said later. “They know they are stuck in something and can’t get out. If they ask me for help, I am willing to help them.” She has found her way to solid self-worth and to a career.
Thank you to Paul Wasko (ePortfolio Initiative Coordinator, Academic Innovations & eLearning, University of Alaska Anchorage, firstname.lastname@example.org) for his help in arranging for this story. Paul has been a long-time supporter of WCET.
A version of it originally appeared in the University of Alaska Anchorage Green & Gold News. Thank you to Kathleen McCoy, Editorial Director, UAA Office of Advancement for her help in arranging for us to publish this story.
Substantial conversations about teaching and schools cannot happen without the voices of teachers and principals. It seems obvious. Yet in too many places, educational policies are being written without our input, panels at education conferences are held without any teacher-speakers, and teacher expertise is routinely called into question.
For the last seven months, ED has taken one small step by publishing on our blog more first-hand accounts from practitioners than virtually any other source – pairing major policy announcements with powerful Voices from the Classroom written by teachers and principals who describe why these policies matter. When the Secretary announced a plan to make teaching in high-needs schools the best job in the world, we published a narrative from a teacher in the Bronx who shared how teaching there allows her to be an agent of change and to support her students in becoming agents of change too. When ED proposed a new rule to combat disparities in the treatment of students of color with disabilities, two special educators shared why such an action would make a difference in their schools.
We heard from a Spanish teacher at an all-girls school who incorporates computer science into her classes, a Baltimore principal who shared how his school is tackling chronic absenteeism, and a guidance counselor in Washington State who wrote about how her school is helping more of its students than ever become the firsts in their families to attend college. And these are only a few of the more than 30 teachers from more than 20 states whose stories we’ve published in the first half of the year.
Publishing the voices of teachers is just one of many efforts at ED that honors what teachers have to say. For example, ED hires cohorts of Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows, practitioners who spend a year with ED to do outreach to teachers in the field and help ED develop policies that affect schools; Secretary John King holds monthly Teas with Teachers; and thousands of teachers have participated in events associated with Teach to Lead, an initiative by the U.S. Department of Education, ASCD, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to draw on teacher expertise to help drive transformation in schools.
All this matters. By amplifying the voices of our colleagues around the country – and someday maybe even yours – we say to teachers everywhere, we’re listening. We say, you’re the experts. We say, we need your voices.