guest perspective

People who say geography means rural areas can’t share in Trump’s school choice vision are wrong. Here’s why

PHOTO: Danielle Scott / Creative Commons

Do some school choice programs make sense in rural America? For students like Paige Knutson, Daniel Lopez Gomez, and Merle Vander Weyst, the answer is certainly yes.

President-elect Donald Trump and his choice for secretary of education insist that private-school vouchers are a good idea. I strongly disagree. But there are examples across America that show how public school choice options can help rural students and families. Having worked with rural schools for 28 years, I know that geography isn’t an insurmountable hurdle.

These options include district schools-within-schools, alternative and magnet schools, charter schools, distance learning options, and dual high school/college credit programs. With federal support, the best of them should be identified, strengthened and replicated.

Why? Let’s start with Paige, Daniel, and Merle.

Some years ago, Paige Knutson brought Minnesota legislators to tears as she explained how a rural Minnesota alternative school had saved her life. Knutson, an honor student and cheerleader, was the oldest in a large farm family that was in danger of losing their property. When she became pregnant, she was kicked off the cheerleading squad and removed from the honor society. These weren’t appropriate responses from the school. But they were the reality.

She thought about taking her own life. Fortunately, a friend told her about a nearby alternative school that welcomed her. Her testimony helped convince Minnesota legislators to permit state per-pupil dollars to follow youngsters who attend alternative schools across district lines.

Dozens of communities in rural Minnesota, like Blackduck, Cass Lake, and Redwood Falls, host these alternative schools. One of the most inspiring programs I’ve seen anywhere in the U.S. is the annual MAAP STARS conference, where alternative school students perform, display projects, and earn statewide recognition.

Daniel Lopez Gomez is one of them. He came to the small town of Worthington, Minnesota from Guatemala in 2013, speaking little English. But he blossomed at the Worthington Alternative School. He recently was named “MAAP Student of the Year.”

Thousands of Minnesota students, many of them in rural communities, attend schools of choice, including but not limited to alternative public schools for youngsters with whom traditional schools have not succeeded.

Merle Vander Wyste, who attends the online Blue Sky Charter School, represents another form of rural school choice. Online schools, including Blue Sky, aren’t successful with all students. But they work very well for some young people.

In an award-winning essay, Vander Wyste explained:

“I was never popular in school. Because of bullying I suffered from social anxiety and depression. I often had suicidal thoughts. In my own home, I didn’t have other students telling me how I needed to act. I did not have anyone pressuring me to try drugs. No one told me that the brand of clothing I was wearing was inadequate. I was able to experience my own personal growth as a person.

Attending Blue Sky Charter School has been a great experience for me. It has allowed me to continue my education in a safe, relaxed setting in my home … I work better at night … and I am able to schedule lessons around work or another activity.”

There are other forms of school choice that work in rural settings. They include:

District schools within schools: One way for rural districts to offer more choices is to innovate within the space they already occupy. Forest Lake, Minnesota features two schools in one building, one of which is Central Montessori Elementary. For many years, International Falls Elementary School did the same — one school had traditional grade-level classrooms, and the other operated more like a one-room schoolhouse, with several grades of students working with each other.

Rural charter schools: Most charter schools aren’t in rural areas. But some are: According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there were 732 rural charters enrolling nearly 200,000 students in 2014-15 school year. Charisse Gulosino has provided fascinating maps of rural charters located, for example, on rural American Indian reservations. She also noted that rural charters serve a slightly higher percentage of low-income students than the national average. One of the most well-known is in tiny Henderson, Minnesota, where students at the Minnesota New Country School study and contribute to the local community.

Dual-credit programs: Minnesota and Washington allow 11th and 12th graders to spend time on a college campus (or in Minnesota, to take college courses on a campus or online), with state funds following students paying for the tuition. Minnesota’s Post-Secondary Enrollment Options law also pays for the students’ books and lab fees. Thousands of rural students use these great programs.

I hope that President-elect Trump, DeVos, and Congress will listen to rural, as well as urban and suburban, families that are making great use of these opportunities. Using multiple measures, the federal government can help identify the best of these programs. Then it can help share information, expand and replicate those that are unusually successful.

Joe Nathan has been a public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, National Governors Association project coordinator, researcher, advocate and weekly newspaper columnist. He directs the Center for School Change.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.