On the Road With NW RISE: Promoting Student Engagement in Rural Schools


April 1, 2015


Photo of Matt Eide, Mike Siebersma, and Danette Parsley
Matthew Eide, Mike Siebersma, and Danette Parsley of Education Northwest visiting the White Pass School District in Washington state.

In the end, they traveled more than 1,500 miles over six days in a van usually rented out to rock bands. When they weren't in the van, they were visiting schools in five remote communities across three Northwest states as part of NW RISE—a project that aims to increase rural students' engagement in their schools and community.

Andy Hargreaves, a Boston College professor and one of the six-member NW RISE technical assistance road team, says that the ultimate aim of increasing engagement is to raise student achievement, and that the NW RISE strategy focuses on teachers. The project has established a professional development network of educators from small and isolated districts in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

"One of the best ways to build social capital is to connect teachers with other teachers," he says. He adds that this has always been a challenge though especially in rural areas where there might be only one teacher in a grade or subject area in a region, and access to assistance might not be available.

Now in its second year, NW RISE was designed to address that challenge by bringing together teachers, principals, and superintendents from participating school districts, along with state education agency staff, to meet face to face twice a year. Participants gather in job alike groups (for example, language arts teachers work together) and continue their communications after the meetings through webinars and other online systems. The result is an educator support network that focuses on enhancing the experience of students.

Dennis Shirley, also of Boston College and who read Stephen E. Ambrose's Lewis and Clark biography Undaunted Courage to get in the mood for the road trip, points to the "incredible resilience and heroism" of rural educators, who often work in schools without counselors our art and music teachers and live in areas that often are losing population. One of the districts the team visited has a nearly 100 percent poverty level. "People think of schools as urban schools," Shirley says. "Over half of schools are rural."

Hargreaves says that while rural schools face common challenges related to distance, size, and access, there are differences among schools and communities that create their own distinct strengths and needs. He points out that among the five schools visited on the road trip, one was a charter school, one was set up like an academy, and another was a district with only 80 students. Other differences included the quality of school facilities and level of community support.

The road trip approach helped the technical assistance team get a better sense of how to support the schools. As Hargreaves says, "The idea is to meet with schools not in an office or a hotel but rather to be with the school and see firsthand what they are doing." He also appreciated how much the schools opened up to the team and said that the students were outstanding." Shirley echoed those sentiments, saying that after his presentations, "great kids would come up to you, look you in the eye, have a million questions, and say thank you."

In addition to work benefiting students, NW RISE's efforts have the potential to impact the schools' communities. The trend has long been that successful students in rural schools leave after high school. When students are engaged in their schools and communities, however, they can develop a sense of place that might lead them to want to settle down in area where they grew up and strengthen their home community in the process.

The trip also provided a rare opportunity for self-development for members of the NW RISE team as they plan future activities. The unlikely source was the roughly 25 hours they spent together in the van. "You talk a lot on the road," Hargreaves says. "In the van, you plan, prepare, brief, and debrief."

Michael O'Connor, a doctoral student at Boston College, thinks of the van experience as "five days of constant fun” as the conversations moved from field work to deep theorizing. "As a doctoral student and someone who cares about education, it means a lot to have these conversations."

Another highlight for O'Connor was the chance to play bagpipes at an elementary school assembly and later participate in an upper-level band class where he was able to "have a great conversation about music," showing the 12 students in the class how the bagpipe's reeds work and explaining how the instrument just has nine notes. "It was a chance for students to connect place, music, culture, and art, and see that in person," he says. "It was an example of the kind of engagement we’re looking for."

What's next for NW RISE? As the existing network matures, one of the next steps, Hargreaves says, is to look at how to extend the network's benefit to other teachers in each school and strengthen the schools internally.

Students Speak Out on What Engages Them

On the road trip's final day, the NW RISE team visited the schools that make up the White Pass school district in Washington state located in the Cascade range a couple hours from Seattle.

First-year superintendent Chuck Wyborney is proud of the new floor in the high school gym and the boys’ basketball team who were defending state champs and still undefeated as of mid-February. "You can tell it's a sports town," Wyborney says. "We have two gyms in the high school and one in the elementary school. That’s three gyms for a district with 400 kids."

He's also proud of the school's science lab, the availability of iPads for students to check out, an LCD projector in every classroom, the school's graphic design program and AP art class, and of course, his teachers and students.

The NW RISE team came to the schools looking for examples of student engagement. It was evident in a first-grade classroom where a teacher was leading a call-and-response activity in which students guessed the pattern of various geometric shapes. The young students gave their full attention to the teacher who kept students on their feet with transitions such as, "Okay, everybody groan. Now stop groaning" The students followed suit.

Engagement was also apparent in a fifth-grade class with students working on problem strings, showing multiple ways to solve math problems on a whiteboard in the front of the classroom. After writing out their method, the students expressed to the class how they reached their answers and gave a reason why they solved it that way. Oblivious to the observers in the back of the room from NW RISE, the students were literally jumping out of their seats to get to the front of the class to show their answers.

The team also spent a class period getting to know students in the high school's AP English class—students that Superintendent Wyborney refers to as the school's "future rocket scientists, lawyers, and politicians." It was both Friday the Thirteenth and the day before Valentine's day, and the class began with students presenting their English teacher with a Valentine report card (all A's) and a student reading a sonnet he wrote in which he expresses his love for Netflix.

With desks in a circle, the class then shared their school experiences with the NW RISE team. Education Northwest's Matthew Eide facilitated the discussion by asking first what the students liked about the school and where they live. A group of four boys talked about activities like hunting, fishing, skiing, and snowboarding. "The first day of hunting season is like a national holiday," one boy said. "We like to hunt here." The boys went on to say that theirs is a good school with good sports programs and boys' team state championships. This drew a girl to respond that the school also has good girls' teams, including volleyball, basketball, and track, with their own state championships, and that there are good runners who went out for cross-country though not enough to make a full team.

Eide probed a little deeper on why students like their school. He heard responses such as students like their teachers ("We had teachers in the past who didn't do anything. The teachers now are much better."), electives (some of which, like sociology and sports medicine are only offered every few years), the availability of iPads for writing essays, and the school's positive atmosphere.

As a follow up, Eide asked students what gets them engaged in school. One student said she liked it when teachers ask her opinion and engage her mind. "It makes it more personal," she said. Another student said, "When teacher gives me a reason to be engaged, then I can be engaged." Others also mentioned teachers' enthusiasm as a source of inspiration, and one student said that engagement also can be inspired by peers. "When your friends get into it, you get into it," he said. Another student talked about the opportunity to take advanced classes—such as a college-level science course through Central Washington University—helps inspire interest in school.

The students also shared their perception of urban schools and their thoughts on attending a rural school. One student said that in a big city school, kids roll through the system without even trying. "Here, teachers know your personally and know if you’re working hard." Other students added that "with 15 kids per class, everybody knows everybody" and "no one really falls asleep in class without getting caught." Other students expressed the benefits of larger schools, such as having "electives opportunities that I don’t even know about" and that there are "more options in the city."

Despite near unanimity among students on liking their school and the place where they live, when asked if they plan to settle down here, all but a handful of students said they are planning to leave. "A lot of people want to get out of Randle," said one student. "There's not much to do here. There are mill workers and people who work at the school." Another student expressed that "it's hard being so far away from everything." "Most kids will leave, some will come back," said another.

NW RISE Heads Back Home

The NW RISE team parts ways as the Boston College crew catches an early flight out ahead of what seemed like weekly blizzards hitting New England, and the Education Northwest members drive the black van back home to Portland late Friday afternoon.

Asked if taking the time to hit the road to visit schools in the network is a worthwhile endeavor, Education Northwest’s Danette Parsley immediately says yes, then rattles off several reasons why. She notes that when the network gathers for meetings in a central location, schools can only bring a few teachers and administrators, and that the schools are really excited when the NW RISE team comes to visit. (A local newspaper in one of the communities ran a story about NW RISE coming to town.) Lastly, she adds how important it is to get a sense of the places where the schools are in order to explore and identify the multiple ways rural schools build student engagement. “It's that powerful mix of common needs and interests coupled with the distinctive character of each school and community that makes the NW RISE Network such an effective structure for the growth of its members—as individuals and schools," she says.