Play, Love, Stay:  Let’s Start a Movement

By Linda L. Carrier, Ed.D

IMG_5071The Third Annual Rural Educational Leaders Summit was held at Plymouth State University on July 18th and 19th.   Attended by 44 educational leaders representing all regions of the state and 20 SAUs, the summit provided an opportunity for us as a professional learning network to explore and consider how we as leaders could each become stronger advocates for rural education; and, how we could lead our schools to develop community partnerships that will contribute to rural renewal. Over the two days, conversations were both intense and inspirational. Speakers, like the Rural School and Community Trust’s Executive Director, Robert Mahaffey; Stay Work Play New Hampshire’s Executive Director, Will Stewart; The Rural Schools Collaborative Executive Director, Gary Funk; and the Educational Development Center’s Co-Director of Math and Science Programs, Pam Buffington in collaboration with Executive Councilman Joe Kenney (R), Senator Jeff Woodburn (D), and Deputy Commissioner of Education Christine Brennan shared experiences and resources, and engaged us in conversations that served to tell the story of rural New Hampshire and its schools.

Robert Mahaffey shared with us the findings of the Rural School and Community Trust’s report, Why Rural Matters. The report identified that a third of the state’s K-12 population and half of its schools are in rural communities. These factors in combination with the percent of state funds to rural schools, resulted in rural education in New Hampshire ranking high on the report’s importance gauge. As the conversation developed over the two days, attendees engaged in discussion about concerns related to outmigration of youth from rural areas, resources for addressing the increasing need for social and emotional learning, and the need for strong place based learning practices as a solution to both issues. Hill’s Jennie D. Blake School principal, Brian Connelly (@connellyba) and members of the Hill Historical Society as well as Rural Schools Collaborative New Hampshire Grants in Place recipients, Amber Comtois and Chris Misavage from Wentworth Elementary School, shared their experience developing place based learning experiences that not only developed academic skills but supported students in developing a deep sense of connection to their community. Historians from Hill shared their stories of working with the children and the excitement that both they and the students experienced working together. The teachers RELN 3from Wentworth spoke with passion about the Baker River study they would be conducting with their grant award, showed pictures of the variety of ways the children connect to the river and shared questions and concerns the children have about “their” river. In both Hill and Wentworth, it was clear to us that the place based learning experience created a sense of joy for learning, highly engaged students with the community and in learning, and supported a profound sense of connection and love for the community.

Lisa Perras, Principal of Groveton High School shared her own experience uncovering the story of her students’ connection to their community. After conversations with the middle school age students and sophomores in her building, Lisa discovered that students hadn’t experienced the activities and local resources that tourists visit our state to enjoy. Sadly, she also uncovered the students lack the same excitement about their community that visitors that travel north each year have; and, that they lacked a strong positive connection to the community, viewing it as lacking in opportunities and resources. A life-long resident that loves her community, Lisa was inspired by her students and has now begun to seek resources that will support the school in developing learning experiences that will provide access to the same resources tourists enjoy. Realizing that a key to developing a strong positive connection to the community is experiencing the joy of its natural resources, Lisa is seeking to develop learning opportunities that include mountain biking, white water rafting, and exploring local rivers and forests. Coining the phrase, play love then stay, Lisa shared with us her belief that by supporting students in enjoying their communities through place based learning, they would develop a love of their community that could result in more making the choice to stay and become productive members of local economies.

As Gary Funk pointed out to us, we all as members of the rural education field need to do a better job of telling the story of rural schools and communities. Lisa’s story and the experiences that the folks from Hill and Wentworth shared made it clear to us that place based learning must become an intentional and significant part of the rural school experience if we are to meaningfully address social and emotional learning needs and outmigration of youth from rural New Hampshire. In partnership with our communities, we can start a movement that ensures all students in rural schools can – play, love, then stay. 

Share with us how you support your students to play, love, stay. We’d love to read your rural school’s story!

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Extended Learning Opportunities, a Strategy for Closing the Opportunity Gap

By Linda L. Carrier, Ed.D.

High school can be a stressful time for any student. The awareness of students that in a short four years they will be expected to make a decision about how they will start off their adult lives, is a looming reality. A reality that perhaps some prefer to avoid, but that others become extremely concerned with, a concern that can show up in their lives as depression, anxiety, and potentially risky behaviors. In rural communities the stress related to what comes after high school is not insignificant. High achieving students are taught they must leave the place they love, their community, in order to have a life. They must choose between letting down the adults that have invested in their future success by choosing to stay in their communities or to give up the community that has been their home and source of support. Students who are less academically inclined are faced with the lack of obvious post high school options. Often coming from communities that can be described as geographically isolated and/or economically declining, these students can find themselves choosing between entering the military, staying in low paying local jobs, or trying to find their way to community colleges. Lack of exposure to a variety of careers, leaves these students under prepared to make an informed decision.

In regards to educational opportunities and career pathways and options; the opportunity gaps between rural and non-rural students, high achieving students and less academically talented students is real. As rural populations continue to decline and age, rural economies continue to weaken, and rural schools continue to curtail programming and close; the opportunity gaps for rural students continue to widen, a phenomenon that contributes to weakening economies. Extended Learning Opportunities, or ELOs, provide an effective place-based educational strategy that can begin to decrease opportunity gaps and infuse declining economies with a ready workforce. Provided to students as real world experiences, that allow them to explore their interests outside of the school and earn credit toward graduation through the demonstration of competencies; ELOs enable rural students the opportunity to explore potential career options and pathways they may not have otherwise experienced or considered. Because they occur within a drivable distance to home, ELOs help students maintain their connection to their communities. A necessary bond if they are to be a part of finding solutions to rural economic renewal.

Providing an ELO program is not without challenge. However, it is potentially part of the solution to declining rural economies; making solving implementation challenges critical not only for rural students, but for the communities they live in. The geographic isolation and limited opportunities available in many communities can make access to ELO experiences difficult for students. A key lesson learned from schools that have incorporated ELOs into their high school programming is the need for a coordinator and strong community based partnerships. Financially supporting a coordinator position can be challenging for schools located in communities with declining economies. Coordinators are able to develop strong community based partnerships that support student engagement in ELOs and provide students and partners the resource needed to collaboratively develop the learning experience. The cost and geographic challenges related to ELO programming can be inhibitive for rural schools, this can result in students accessing ELOs primarily through web based options. While these can be appropriate they do not support a connection to place.

Three of New Hampshire’s rural High Schools that are faced with both economic and geographic challenges have been able to develop ELO opportunities for their students; opportunities that both develop community connection and allow for the exploration of career pathways and options. At Lisbon Regional School partnerships with the Lisbon and Littleton Police Departments have provided students the opportunity to explore their interest in criminal justice.   While those with WREN and Wood Pond Veterinary Clinic have provided opportunities to explore interests in marketing and large animal veterinary services. Despite the efforts of schools to develop ELO programs, the geographic challenge related to students getting to and from partner sites can be significant. Lisbon School and Colebrook Academy have both addressed that issue through the development of partnerships that provide a variety of opportunities for students at one site. Lisbon’s partnership with New England Wire affords students the opportunity to explore their interests in mechanical engineering, machining, manufacturing, and sales management; and Colebrook’s partnerships with Coos County Nursing Home and Upper Connecticut Valley Hospital provide the opportunity for students to explore medicine and business. While students seek opportunities outside of schools some seek opportunities in schools. In addition to ELOs that explored medicine, communications, and automotive technology, students at Profile School have explored their interest in working with children and outdoor education at area schools, and local educational organizations like The Highland Center.

Resource and geographic challenges can be significant for rural schools that are developing ELO programs. The necessity of these programs for closing opportunity gaps for rural students is substantial and identifying solutions to resource and geographic challenges is urgent. Rural schools cannot solve these issues by themselves. The development of strong partnerships between schools and community businesses and organizations is key to addressing the resource and geographic challenges faced by many rural schools that are developing ELO programs. To find out more about your High School’s ELO program, and how you can help to support it, contact your school’s principal.

For more information about RELN contact Dr. Linda Carrier at llcarrier@plymouth.edu

 

 

 

The Value of Place in the Education of Our Children

By Linda L. Carrier, Ed.D

45th paralell - CopyAs adults, we frequently consider the value of place. Where do we live?  Where do we work?  Where do our children go to school?  As children, we learned a variety of skills from the places where we grew up, skills that we each draw from as adults.  Where is important to us.  It provides a great deal of information about what we can expect, what will be expected of us, what we need to know and be able to do; it helps us to feel connected as a community.    The same can be said about the curriculum of the schools our children attend.  Where a school is located can provide unique and rich learning opportunities that are uniquely available to that school. In rural New Hampshire that means students are able to experience learning opportunities that incorporate the amazing environment we live in, community values, historical, and cultural resources.

The Rural Educational Leaders Network (RELN) at Plymouth State University is a New Hampshire based professional development network dedicated to the professional growth of educational leaders in our rural areas.  As a network, we strongly believe that schools are the economic drivers of communities and that the partnership between schools and communities is critical to improving declining economies and ensuring the success of every child.  Together, and in partnership with community and business leaders, we explore the relationship between the issues faced by our communities and the school.  As a network we place a high value on the practice of place-based education, or the integration of the community outside of schools into the curriculum as a means of supporting students becoming active citizens in their communities and developing their own sense of why where is important to them.

Through place-based educational opportunities, students become immersed in local history, culture, environment, and economy.  These opportunities enhance the classroom experience and provide exciting opportunities for learning language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and other subjects.  Students also develop the thinking skills they will need to become contributing members of our communities.  There are powerful examples of place-based education throughout New Hampshire’s rural schools.   Programs like Gorham High School’s Maker Space provide students with an opportunity to identify and develop solutions for community-based issues while also developing their knowledge of mathematics, science, technology, and language arts.  Lancaster Elementary’ s Green House program is providing  learning opportunities in science, math, and technology while students work to solve the issue of developing a sustainable food source for the region. Groveton High School’s Off the Grid program allows students to develop science, math, and problem solving skills as they learn how to live off the grid in rural New Hampshire.

Opportunities for place-based education happen outside of the formal school day as well and serve to develop students’ understanding of the cultural beauty of our communities.  Wentworth Elementary’ s Game Night provides the school and community an opportunity to come together to learn about the town’s hunting and fishing culture.   Together they share a meal, provided by community members, and prepared from game harvested as part of the community’s hunting and fishing culture.

Through the use of place-based education New Hampshire’s rural schools are able to provide highly engaging and meaningful learning experiences for students which help them to meet the demands of curriculum standards and develop a strong sense of why where is important to them in their life.  Through the partnership of schools with communities, strong place-based educational programming can develop, and through strong place-based education, our children are supported in developing deep and meaningful connections to our communities. Those connections can provide solutions to community issues and positively influence our economies.   Contact your local school to learn more about how you can help your school’s principal develop partnerships that support place-based education in your community.