By Cynthia Johnston | July 10, 2020
Since 2014, I’ve met twice a year with teacher leaders and administrators from rural, isolated school districts across the region as part of the Northwest Rural Innovation and Student Engagement (NW RISE) Network. These face-to-face meetings have contributed enormously to my professional development and sense of well-being as an educator. They are the only events I attend where everyone “gets” my situation. We learn about critical issues from rural education experts, share knowledge, and collaborate in job-alike groups on projects designed to increase student engagement and achievement. In small schools, you often have no one with whom you can collaborate or problem-solve, making NW RISE an essential service for helping rural educators succeed and stay in the profession.
So, what did we do when social distancing began? We went virtual. With staff members from the Region 16 and Region 17 Comprehensive Centers, we planned and conducted our first virtual convening on June 23–24. In total, 75 rural educators and education stakeholders from Alaska, Idaho, Montana, and Washington participated in the nearly seven-hour event. Kathleen Budge, an associate professor at Boise State University, delivered a keynote on educational leadership in the face of COVID-19.
As a founding NW RISE member, I was eager to see what opportunities arose in the remote convening. After all, I know remote—my community’s population density is five people per square mile! Plus, since 2014, all our NW RISE job-alike groups have collaborated virtually between convenings. When you need to connect, you figure out how to make it happen.
I was pleasantly surprised that our special education group’s Zoom sessions were among the most focused and efficient meetings we’ve ever had. Also, despite having less time to meet, we were especially productive. We identified an emergent, critical focus across our elementary and secondary schools: how to better meet the needs of special education students when they are at home. Specifically, we discussed ways to address behavior goals, support math learning, and measure progress.
All the best aspects of NW RISE were on display during the convening, including “coffee in the commons,” a time for logging on and greeting fellow members informally. Additionally, the state-specific meetings, in which rural school educators network with state education agency leaders, were very informative as we face the possibility of continued school closures.
Meeting virtually does have drawbacks, though. For instance, we did not have opportunities to chat and make personal connections over lunch. I also missed the reams of chart paper on the walls of our conference room reminding us of our previous day’s work. In addition, virtual events work best when you’ve already established relationships and trust, so new members may have found it harder to engage if their first NW RISE experience was the online convening.
Despite these challenges, I’m excited for our next virtual convening in November, and I’m confident we will build on the successes of the June event. This is our moment. With no travel costs, more educators can participate in NW RISE—and when we grow, our impact on small and rural schools also increases.
Note: Are you a rural educator from Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, or Washington and interested in joining the NW RISE Network? Contact Rosie Santana, rural education lead at the Region 17 Comprehensive Center.