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.