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Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. II

The Ideal Rural School


by Dawn Weyiouanna
Bering Strait School District


When I imagine the ideal school for a rural community, first of all, I attempt to identify the problems at my own school and consider some solutions for those problems. These solutions come from my experience, from ideas presented at the Rural Academy, and from other teachers that have shared their successes and failures. Secondly, I attempt to identify the strengths of our school and where we could expand on the positive practices, so that we could help students to an even greater degree. Thirdly, I consider new ideas - ideas to be tried just for the sake of innovation and creativity. Sometimes students gain valuable experiences from programs which didn't meet the expected goal at all, but had spin-offs that no one could have anticipated. Finally, I like to think that the ideal school could really be anywhere. We very often have a tendency to segregate rural and urban teachers, schools, curricula, and communities when, instead, we could be thinking of our similarities and the adaptations that would fit our own situations, whatever they may be. 

With this as the premise, I suggest that one element of the ideal school is that a spirit of cooperation is fostered there. This may begin in a single classroom where cooperative learning is encouraged but should extend beyond this to include the entire school. Students from all the various levels model for, encourage, and help each other. Older students read to younger ones, run contests for them, are aides in the lower grades, or are paired to provide assistance at transition periods, such as making the advancement from junior high to high school. Younger students read to older ones, put on plays for them, and make cards for them on special days. Each class might take a month of birthdays and make sure everyone gets something special for his birthday that month.

Cooperation among the students, of course, necessitates the same from the teaching staff. One practice from Japan which might aid in this area would be that of beginning every day of school as an entire staff, discussing the upcoming day as a group. Schedules affected by cooperative exchanges, materials necessary for the day, and ideas for new programs or methods would have a chance to be discussed. Perhaps more creativity would prosper if we broke the tradition of beginning each school day by isolating ourselves in our classrooms. In addition, teachers would have continual inservices, exchanges, and opportunities to observe each other to aid in their own cooperative learning. One possibility for aiding in the high cost of such practices, where long distances between schools exist, might be for teachers to provide their transportation to a site, while the school district provides a substitute.

In the ideal school the spirit of cooperation among students and staff exists because of another element in the program - consistent and innovative leadership. Our communities and school districts have a vested interest in preparing as many people as possible who are experienced with our own schools for administrative positions. To have to deal with new leadership year after year drains the energy out of any program. Overlapping terms of employment might aid in improving this situation.

As soon as administrators announce their desire to leave their positions, replacements could be hired for a term from January to December, for example, so that administrative mentoring ensures continuity within the program and ease of entry for the newly hired. Another advantageous practice would be to always have at least one staff member as an intern. This would facilitate continual communication between staff and administration, including the implementation of new programs. In addition, this practice would continually be preparing administrators from the teaching ranks. Each intern might be responsible for piloting a program or method, and gathering input for its use the following year. Such interning secures a continual flow of new ideas.

Community and parent Involvement is an essential element of an ideal school as well. Parent involvement in the classroom demonstrates to the community and students that the school values the parents' knowledge. In addition, this input provides the classroom teacher with a valuable base to draw on in order to teach skills the students need. Students, too, need to have input into their learning. I say input, rather than full determination, because whenever I inquire of students of any age about their interests, I get many blank stares, unless I have prefaced this with a brainstorming session or a few suggestions to be used as springboards. Then they are off and running. Teachers are not strictly facilitators. We are certainly that - but even more. We have direction and purpose. We focus students' enthusiasm and channel their curiosity and energy. In accordance with our school's philosophy, we have an obligation to teach the skills children need to accomplish the goals parents help set for them. In the ideal school the desires and experiences of parents and students are used as a base of knowledge to draw from and for direction in students' learning.

Using parents, familiar ideas, and student input in the classroom all contribute to another element of the ideal school, which is an environment that promotes self-esteem. Additional efforts are necessary, however, which deal with this element more directly. The effects and problems of racism are dealt with individually and openly in group discussions. All staff are trained for counseling, as well as the school's professional counselors. There is at least one full time counselor for elementary students and one for secondary. The health curriculum covers topics such as careers, comparing and contrasting lifestyles, values, decision-making, peer pressure, suicide, and dealing with life's contradictions and ambiguities. Other agencies of the community such as the city government, Native corporation, health corporation and social services are all involved with the school in planning for this area so that services are not duplicated, but reinforced through all agencies. There is a strong tie between the school and social/health services in the community, so that referrals are acted on immediately. And there is intervention and support for problems. Support is available not only for children but also for parents who need counseling. With the older students, one program that has had growing success in the state is the training of peer counselors. Another helpful option is a regular exchange program with other schools, as suggested by George Olanna in Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned. The more options there are available for students that aid in the handling of their problems, the better their chances for dealing with them in a healthful and socially acceptable manner.

Skill development cannot be overlooked as a necessary element of the ideal school. Students are provided with a foundation in the primary grades that is comprehensive and initiates the continuity which sustains the students throughout their public school careers. The curriculum that provides the framework for these skills comes from a base the students are familiar with and broadens this base to expand student experiences. The school does not try to replicate the community's culture but uses the community knowledge to integrate 'the culture of school' into the student's frame of reference, so that (s)he can be successful in that local culture. The delineation of skill development in this type of curriculum requires a supportive district office staff, which can provide a framework that is both a guide for goal setting, as well as flexible to allow for innovation and creativity.

The ideal school also organizes available resources and employs eclectic teaching methods. Children are individuals and have different learning styles regardless of their cultural background. Some may be stronger auditory learners, some may be better visual learners, and others may be better tactile learners. We need to bombard all their senses and use their strengths to make them stronger in other areas as well. If the students are predominantly visual learners, we use this knowledge in every possible way in our lessons, but we also teach listening skills, so that they are able to get information in as many ways as possible. The more sources of gathering information the child learns, the better chance s/he has to integrate that information. Instead of continually replacing the old methods and materials, the school can many times make a slight adjustment in methods, or a slight addition to the resources already at hand to improve instruction. More progress is made in this fashion, rather than repeatedly starting over from scratch.

Along with using resources that are readily available, the ideal school also uses locally available technology. For many classrooms which develop student-made reading materials, the graphics and word-processing computer programs available can be helpful. These materials promote reading by having a local emphasis, and the more durable they are made through the use of laminators and binding machines, the more available they can be for circulation, just like any other books. The use of technology also improves communication within the school and at a district level all the way up to international communication with sister schools or penpals. Networking is used within a school for labs and for setting up programs used schoolwide in each classroom. Schools communicating with those in other states and countries trade information including graphs, charts, and tables via modems. Video documentation of all school events is kept as a resource in the library and is used for the local TV station for public events at school, such as art shows and awards assemblies, and for exchanges with other schools. Audio-conferencing, as well, is used for communication with support staff by teachers in the district and students from different schools. To en sure the use of this available technology, staff fuembers who are experts in given areas provide continual inservice.

Finally, the ideal school has an evaluation system that includes observation of student achievement, teaching practices, and leadership quality. The tools for evaluation include parent and community surveys similar to those of the State 05 regulations, a self-evaluation including goal-setting and analysis of success, and student samples, in addition to achievement tests. Although the achievement tests are needed in order to have a uniform measure of progression, they have been reviewed to determine that they measure specific skills that the school and community feel are valuable for the students. The tests themselves are evaluated, so that they can be a useful tool in the students' learning.

These elements would make up the ideal school because its whole structure and organization would be susceptible to change. What parents, community members, teachers, and students see in school that they like, they would be able to support and expand upon. Those methods and programs they do not feel are working can be examined more closely for improvement or replacement. Most schools have several of the elements described, but few have them all. By cooperating and sharing ideas and practices, we can learn from each other and adopt successful programs to meet our needs. These successes won't be labeled as such just because we say they are; successful programs are those which have clearly benefitted students.



Ray Barnhardt

Part I * Rural School Ideals

"My Goodness, People Come and Go So Quickly Around Here"
Lance C. Blackwood

Parental Involvement in a Cross-Cultural Environment
Monte Boston

Teachers and Administrators for Rural Alaska
Claudia Caffee

The Mentor Teacher Program
Judy Charles

Building Networks
Helen Eckelman

Ideal Curriculum and Teaching Approaches for a School in Rural Alaska
Teresa McConnell

Some Observations Concerning Excellent Rural Alaskan Schools
Bob Moore

The Ideal Rural Alaska Village School
Samuel Moses

From Then To Now: The Value of Experiential Learning
Clara Carol Potterville

The Ideal School
Jane Seaton

Toward an Integrated, Nonlinear, Community-Oriented Curriculum Unit
Mary Short

A Letter from Idealogak, Alaska
Timothy Stathis

Preparing Rural Students for the Future
Michael Stockburger

The Ideal Rural School
Dawn Weyiouanna

Alternative Approaches to the High School Curriculum
Mark J. Zintek

Part II * Rural Curriculum Ideas

"Masking" the Curriculum
Irene Bowie

On Punks and Culture
Louise J. Britton

Literature to Meet the Needs of Rural Students
Debra Buchanan

Reaching the Gifted Student Via the Regular Classroom
Patricia S. Caldwell

Early Childhood Special Education in Rural Alaska
Colleen Chinn

Technically Speaking
Wayne Day

Process Learning Through the School Newspaper 
Marilyn Harmon

Glacier Bay History: A Unit in Cultural Education
David Jaynes

Principals of Technology
Brian Marsh

Here's Looking at You and Whole Language
Susan Nugent

Inside, Outside and all-Around: Learning to Read and Write
Mary L. Olsen

Science Across the Curriculum
Alice Porter

Here's Looking at You 2000 Workshop
Cheryl Severns

School-Based Enterprises
Gerald Sheehan

King Island Christmas: A Language Arts Unit
Christine Pearsall Villano

Using Student-Produced Dialogues
Michael A. Wilson

We-Search and Curriculum Integration in the Community
Sally Young

Artist's Credits



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Last modified August 18, 2006