Rural schools find unique ways to capture students' imaginations

by Cathy Woodruff

On Board Online • October 23, 2017

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

Students in Delaware County's South Kortright school district raise trout, keep bees, cultivate grapes, hatch chicks and have begun dabbling in hydroponic gardening.

Some 200 verdant miles to the west in Ontario County, another rural district - Naples - has a project-based learning initiative that has led seventh graders to raise money for a local food pantry and try their hand at composting.

And in Essex County, the Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School District is embracing intergovernmental collaborations that include merged sports teams, shared administrators and technical staff, and partnerships for lawn mowing and waste oil disposal.

The three rural school districts were among presenters at NYSSBA's 98th Annual Convention & Education Expo in Lake Placid. As they described local innovations, they shared an approach to curriculum and operational planning that they suggested could work in any district, regardless of the surrounding geography. The key ideas were:

"We have terrible cell service," South Kortright Superintendent Patricia Norton-White told attendees. "It really is awesome!"

How so? Well, kids aren't distracted by devices. And they have enthusiastically embraced a dizzying array of nature-related projects don't necessarily call for internet connectivity.

For instance, students grow apples and blueberries and contribute to raising pigs and other agricultural products that are served in the school cafeteria as part of farm-to-table luncheons.

Students study water quality in the west branch of the Delaware River, one of the places where the school's trout are released annually, and they cultivate vegetables in a greenhouse and outdoor gardens.

"There is a lot of opportunity in your backyard," Norton-White said. "You just have to give the students that chance to dig in."

She suggested that nature-inspired learning can flourish in any type of district. She recalling taking an oceanography class when she was a student in Long Island's densely populated Nassau County.

"It doesn't matter where you are and what's in your backyard. Just bring them to it. Connect the dots," she advised.

Naples teachers Anneke Radin-Snaith and Michelle Walpole are dedicated to embedding project-based learning techniques, which stress learning by doing, throughout their curriculum and pedagogy.

"It's hard to go on field trips because it takes us at least 45 minutes to get anywhere," Radin-Snaith explained. "Our kids are really insulated."

Nevertheless, the teachers have inspired their students to think about global issues ranging from the plight of pollinators to the pursuit of sustainable development practices to poverty and hunger.

Because students in rural areas can feel isolated or disconnected by their distance from other communities, the teachers said they stress projects that also put students in touch with the wider world.

The sustainability curriculum, for example, was built around United Nations sustainability goals, which introduced students to concepts that included "philanthropic colonialism" (in which well-meaning westerners take what worked in one setting and use it in another with little regard for the local culture, geography or societal norms).

In a session called "Small Districts, Big Issues," Douglas Gerhardt, an attorney with Harris Beach, and Scott Osborne, superintendent in the Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School District, concentrated on ways rural schools can address operational challenges in districts with sparse populations and enrollment declines.

The strategy: pool resources. They highlighted a long list of recent inter-district initiatives that have included shared staff and combined bus routes. They outlined success stories of leasing excess classrooms to Head Start and special education programs.

Not all the initiatives have panned out for the long term, but that doesn't mean they weren't worth trying, said Osborne, who served as a shared superintendent for a time with the Westport Central School District.

"Instead of saying 'No, we can't,' flip that narrative," Osborne advised. '"

"You're little," said Gerhardt. "Think big!"

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