“Many families in our community focus on day-to-day survival,” says Chris Spriggs, a high school English teacher in the Glenns Ferry School District located along the Snake River in southeastern Idaho. “They may be forced to pull their children out of school so that the child can work to help with daily necessities like food and rent.”
Aside from struggling with the effects of poverty, educators in isolated schools in rural districts like Glenns Ferry often wear multiple hats and do their best for students, even when tight budget lead to difficult decisions regarding what a school can offer.
In a move to increase student engagement, the Glenns Ferry School District joined NW RISE in 2014. NW RISE, which stands for Northwest Rural Innovation and Student Engagement, is an educator network that brings together rural teachers, principals, and superintendents from participating school districts, along with state education agency staff. Facilitated by Education Northwest, the NW RISE teams meet face-to-face twice a year and communicate virtually throughout the year through webinars and other online platforms. Participants work in job-alike groups—for example, language arts teachers work together—to share best practices and common issues and collaborate on action inquiry projects designed to increase student engagement; it’s an opportunity that’s not available in small schools where there may be only one teacher in a particular content area. The result is an educator support network that focuses on enhancing the experience of students.
Over the last school year, Spriggs and colleagues from other NW RISE schools in Genesee, Idaho, and White Pass, Washington worked together on a writing project that focused on argumentation. Students from the three schools shared their writing on the same topic online, giving each other directed peer feedback. “It was such a rewarding, eye-opening project for my students,” says Spriggs. “It showed them that kids from all over the Northwest are learning the same material they are studying. It made them step outside of their comfort zones, and truly increased the quality of work that they submitted. The project was a definite success.” This year, schools from Dayville and Blachly, Oregon are joining the writing project.
Some educators may think it’s just ‘more work’ attending the NW RISE conferences and online sessions, but what they fail to realize is that it’s not more work; it’s better work. Instead of relying solely upon myself, I can now email, call, or meet online with educators in my subject area who understand the complexities and frustrations of working in a community with limited resources and its own unique issues. Together, we work to resolve these issues through communication, shared resources, and shared experiences. Our lessons, our strategies, and our time become more efficient and effective because we are no longer wasting time trying to fit a ‘square peg into a round hole.’ —Glenns Ferry School District English Teacher Chris Spriggs
Glenns Ferry Superintendent Cody Fisher has seen a closer focus on rigor, student engagement, and continuous improvement among teachers, which he attributes to belonging to the NW RISE network. “It forms a sense of professionalism for our teachers in representing our school and themselves,” Fisher says. “And, it helps us collaborate and work with other educators who have very similar make-ups and face the same challenges we face in educating our students.”
As Education Northwest enters its 50th year, we are taking time to look at what’s happening in the five Pacific Northwest states that make up our region. Focused on Idaho, this article looks at an innovative project that’s helping rural schools connect with each other and increase student engagement. See also our blog post on how Idaho’s shifting economy impacts education and how a research alliance is using data to improve student outcomes in the state.