“How in the world are we gonna do this?” Rural districts adapt to distance learning
As the education community in Colorado has responded and adapted to the rapid changes necessitated by physical distancing in COVID-19 response, I went out looking for stories and examples of how our network of partner school districts are adapting to virtual learning, and how PEBC Residency participants have played a part in helping communities come together, supporting students through this time of unprecedented change.
Our first stop is in far Southwestern Colorado. I recently spoke with Charlotte Forst, Principal of 7th Street Elementary School in Dove Creek, home of the Dolores Re-2 (J) school district. PEBC has worked in partnership with the district since 2015 as part of our Southwest Residency cohort.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Hi Charlotte, Thanks for taking the time to chat. To start, can you introduce our audience to your school/district?
We’re primarily a farming and agricultural community, with some in our community who also work in energy development. Our school is PK-5th grade with about 120 students; our average class size is 16.
We’re about as rural as you can get, so even things like shopping and access to supplies is really hard. For major shopping you have to go to Grand Junction (3 hours) or Farmington, NM (2.5 hours). Durango is about 1.5 hours away, and we’re about 7.5 hours from Denver by car.
How did your school approach the challenge of supporting your students and community at this time? What have you focused on over the last few weeks?
Our biggest challenge has been “how in the world are we gonna do this?” Being a small district it’s been an opportunity to connect with our community to see what the different needs were. Our administrative assistant made contact with each family – do you need lunch, do you need the internet, what do you need? – so that we could be responsive to families. That’s been one of the unique advantages to being a part of a small community.
Being in a very rural area, sometimes even access to the internet is very difficult. We have one company that is increasing their access to the internet in our community where they’re prioritizing families without access. For some families with affordability issues, we’re working with another community partner that is helping to cover those costs.
This was an issue affecting both our families and our teachers. We had one staff member who has never had the internet at her house, she lives so far out of town that it was cost-prohibitive to put in the infrastructure. The community provider agreed to install the infrastructure to her house, and now she’s hooked up.
We checked out a Chromebook to every K-12 student who needed one. Our tech person does such a good job of making those Chromebooks usable for students, where it’s really easy for them to find the programs that they need to use.
We’re also doing meal distribution – we have drop off and pick up points at school at the beginning and end of the day. If a family can’t make it in then we are willing to deliver, we have our bus drivers delivering meals. If the families are ones where they don’t have an internet connection, we’re delivering classroom materials through lunch drop off as well. Sometimes that’s just a useability issue – some parents who aren’t tech savvy – we’re modifying as we see fit. We’re trying to limit contact with people but making adjustments based on what people need.
Thanks for that perspective. I’d like to talk a bit more about the virtual learning component to really understand how that’s playing out for you so far. How has it been transitioning to using Google Classroom full-time?
It sounds simple, but for our elementary teachers this is such a new territory – we don’t teach online. We utilize programs but we aren’t posting assignments or having students submit work this way. It’s been a huge learning curve for our community, for our students.
We took a week to get ready – trained our staff on a Monday/Tuesday, and then on Wednesday/Thursday we had families come to school by last name so that we could promote the social distancing piece and had them come in and clean out desks like it was the last day of school. [Dove Creek, like many rural school districts in Colorado, is on a four-day school week.] We gave them their workbooks; our students already had access to their textbooks online.
The first day [of virtual learning] felt a lot like the first day of school in the fall. That first week was hard overall, but by the end of the week people were feeling better.
To go back to that communication piece: I’ve been doing a virtual coffee meeting with every one of our teachers and I keep highlighting to them – have all of your students joined your Google Classroom, has everyone turned assignments in? Let’s figure out how we’re going to connect to those that aren’t engaged yet. We’re identifying those few students and we’re reaching out to see what we need to do to meet their needs. What works for one family may not work for another so we’re looking to see where we can be flexible.
You have a number of teachers in your building who have earned their license through PEBC’s Teacher Residency – this school year, there are two teachers in your building who are enrolled in our residency cohort, and there are three residency alumni working there as well. How has this group helped to support student learning during this transition?
They’re extremely resilient. They are the ones who when the rugs were pulled out from under them, they seemed to adapt to the change the most quickly. Not only that, they turned into leaders in our school by teaching some of the other teachers some of the ins and outs of the technology.
In Google Classrooms, it’s fairly easy to send out and receive instructions and assignments. That’s initially what I thought [my staff] would be able to do. I also showed them how to use Google Hangouts as well, and how to record a lesson.
As individuals, [the PEBC Residents] started figuring more things out on their own,, and started tutoring other teachers on how to utilize Google Classroom to further help their students. A lot of our teachers knew how to post assignments on Google Classroom, but they didn’t know how to record a lesson while also sharing their screen and how to post that recorded lesson into Classroom. It isn’t that [the PEBC Residents] already knew how to do all of that, but they were willing to problem-solve, figure it out and willing to share it out with the rest of our staff.
They have also been able to help out parents at home. We actually created a placeholder student account, and one of the PEBC trained teachers, our 3rd grade teacher, used that profile and connected with families in her class to tutor them directly through their questions, and show them how to help their kids access lessons and submit assignments.
That’s great to hear. Are there other ways that PEBC has supported these teachers throughout the year that you think are beneficial in our current learning environment?
You guys do such a good job with reflective practice, looking at what they’re doing and how they can be doing it better. Besides having that tenacity about them, they’re extremely resilient. I think that Sherri (Maxwell) and Chris (Powell) [PEBC’s Field Manager and Field Coach in the region], they challenge the candidates immensely, but that challenge is what’s made them so well suited to handling this kind of stress and to being adaptive. I think that has made them well-suited to be able to handle the challenges that have been put in front of them. They’re able to fall down, wipe the dust off of their knees, and move forward and readjust so that they don’t fall down again.
Anything else you would like the reader to know – about your school, your students, working with PEBC?
I think the preparation through PEBC has been very valuable. Last year I had a lot of turnover of staff, and I think that I’m actually going to keep most if not all of my staff next year.
We’ve started thinking about how what we’ve had to do to meet this moment can be carried forward. Since my teachers have been forced to do this online teaching thing, I think an opportunity for the future could be somewhat of a blended learning model, using these online learning tools in their live classrooms. I had a parent say to me that their 2nd grader and 5th grader are being introduced to things that they weren’t introduced to until they went to college as far as using technology. And this was someone who was greatly concerned about how virtual learning would work, so that’s been encouraging.