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Rural Landscapes: 2010 Survey for Educational Leaders

Prepared by Terri MacDonald & Linda Farr Darling

Approximately 65,000 or 11% of students in British Columbia attend rural schools (BC Ministry of Education, 2010).  While each rural school is unique, many of these schools are challenged by declining enrollment as their predominately resource-dependent local economies struggle to create a viable new role new place in the global economy.  Educators are also under increasing pressure to deliver a quality education experience within the context of fiscal restraint.  In 2003, the BC Minister of Education commissioned a Task Force to explore rural education in BC with respect to challenges and opportunities, best practices and innovative solutions, and the role of e-learning.  The current study (Rural Landscapes 2010) revisits findings from the 2003 Task Force report in an effort to explore the landscape of rural education in BC in 2010.  This report presents the perspectives of 106 board and school-level leaders with respect to common rural strengths and challenges, staffing trends and needs, possibilities for teacher preparation and professional development, and the utilization of technology.  Findings and recommendations are presented against the backdrop of the BC Ministry of Education’s new emphasis on personalized learning.  According to the Ministry of Education, educating the 21st Century learner will require a focus on the needs and interests of each student, will require an approach that is more interdisciplinary and applied to real life problems and issues, and will include an increase in community-based learning.

Quantitative findings suggest both board and school-level leaders consider the need for affordable, rural-focused professional development and the challenges related to teacher attraction and retention to be the most relevant issues in 2010.  While family atmosphere, personalized learning and community links continue to represent strengths, a number of other issues continue to present challenges for rural educators.  These areas of concern appear to be connected to rural economic struggles and resulting family and social problems, population decline leading to school closures, limited secondary courses due to low enrollment and / or a lack of teacher specialists, inadequate support for Aboriginal students, multi-grade classes that do not serve all students equally, and constrained innovation due to limiting collective agreements.

Findings also suggest that board-level leaders consider some teacher’s reservations toward e-learning and the ‘windshield time’ spent by board staff to be persistent challenges while school-level leaders did not rate these as high priority concerns.  Board-level leaders were also more likely to support the use of digital technologies to address limited senior secondary course offerings.  In contrast, school-level leaders were more likely to express concern over the inadequate provision of support for special needs students and were more likely to extoll the benefits of small class sizes.  School-level leaders also reported a higher level of concern over school-board relations than their board-level colleagues, although the level of this concern was still somewhat minimal in contrast to other findings.

Qualitative findings suggest the experiences of rural schools vary widely according to context (i.e. proximity to larger centre versus remote schools without access to a range of services. Regardless of context, some common strengths and challenges exist.  The school-community bond, flexibility and a personalized approach to learning continue to represent strengths for rural schools.  However, in many cases declining enrollment has translated to an increase in multi-grade classes that span wide age ranges and the benefits of personalized learning are eroding as a result.  Declining enrollment and ensuing budget cuts have also translated into increased demands on educators.  Teacher burnout was highlighted as a concern especially for teachers asked to teach in numerous subject areas or those who were provided with inadequate preparation time.  The availability of senior secondary course options was another area impacted by declining enrollment.  In some cases schools have a limited number of students and a limited number of teacher specialists making a broad program of senior course offerings difficult.  Many courses simply are not offered or are offered every second year, including senior math and science courses.  While some of these senior level courses may not be required for graduation they are often needed for entrance into university programs of study.  Distance and isolation continue to present challenges especially for remote schools making transportation to larger centres and access to health and social services costly.  These factors limit the access remote schools have to in-person support from district staff, professional development opportunities and enhanced student learning experiences (i.e. field trips).

Most school leaders agree that all-day kindergarten will have a positive impact on academic and social success, especially for more vulnerable students.  However, implementation timeline and implementation readiness varied widely.  Some schools had already been offering all-day kindergarten, some schools were planning to implement in the Fall of 2010, some districts planned to wait until the Fall of 2011 to avoid catchment area concerns, and some districts were implementing programs in some schools in 2010 with remaining schools following in the 2011.  Responses also varied with respect to implementation readiness.  Some respondents reported the expertise, staff and facilities were in place while others reported one or all of these elements were not in place.  Aside from the positive impact of early childhood learning, benefits included assistance to working parents, access to the bussing system (half day scheduling had previously prevented use), and the potential for increased revenue generation.  Reported concerns included the long school day for young students, difficulty scheduling staff breaks, a lack of community support, anticipated need for additional funding and the profound difficulty of implementing all-day kindergarten in multi-grade classrooms.

There was some evidence of tension between various stakeholders due to the locus of decision-making and funding, including the perception that government decision-making is driven by urban as opposed to rural needs (i.e. not fully considering the unique rural challenge of implementing all-day kindergarten in a multi-grade setting).  Concern over the transparency of rural funding allocation was also evidenced suggesting the need for improved communication between schools and their boards.  While there appeared to be little tension between communities and their school boards, the critical role rural schools play in their communities was often highlighted.  For some survey respondents, the survival of the community itself depends on keeping their school open.  Threats of school closures served to bring a cross-section of community members together to save their school.  In terms of funding, staffing and resource cuts appear to be commonplace.  A number of administrators expressed concern over the inadequacy of the funding model while others (primarily superintendents) clarified that adequate funding protections are in place for rural schools.

Perceptions related to staffing trends and needs were truly mixed.  Approximately one third of respondents reported that retirements were expected to be high in the next 3 to 5 years and their districts and schools would be looking to hire.  A third reported that retirements and the effect of decreased enrollment were resulting in staffing stability.  A third reported that due to declining enrolment, staffing would be decreased.  Regardless of geographic context (remote, rural but close to larger centre) specialists were reported to be in demand, especially educators specializing in science, math and special education.  There was also some reported need for ‘do it all’ educators, administrators, and K/1 teachers.  Findings suggest remote schools are experiencing more pronounced attraction and retention challenges due to factors related to living in an isolated environment (i.e. limited social opportunities, lack of employment for one’s spouse, limited access to services).  However, young teachers do seem to be moving to remote communities to gain experience but many leave a few years later as positions in more desirable locations become available.  Rural schools close to larger communities experience the unique challenge of retaining teachers and administrators when positions become available in bigger nearby towns.  Cutting down on commuting time and obtaining a job without multiple responsibilities were cited as reasons the jobs in larger centres are considered to be more desirable.

According to school and district leaders teacher preparation programs should include an increased focus on differentiated instruction and assessment and should also include a rural practicum or a course on rural issues, or both.  Both district and school leaders also specifically mentioned the need for an increased focus on supporting special needs, and designing more effective programs for Aboriginal students.  They also described the importance of flexibility in working in small schools and making positive community connections.  It was also noted that rural teaching is not for everyone.  It requires a certain type of person, someone who is adaptable, willing to participate in broader community activities, and is prepared to handle the sometimes isolating experience as well as the ‘fishbowl’ phenomenon that accompanies life in a small place.  Educational leaders also strongly recommended that new teachers have access to mentoring opportunities and orientation sessions in their first few years of teaching.

Provincial-level professional development opportunities are relatively underutilized by rural and remote teachers with the exception of the now discontinued Rural Education Conference, the discontinued but recently resurrected BC Education Leadership Council, and the still active BCTF Workshops Program.  Limited utilization of provincial or district-level professional development support appears to be linked to discontinued PD opportunities, constrained budgets, travel costs, and collective agreements.  Professional development is primarily teacher-led as outlined by collective agreements, which can serve to be problematic as teachers often have little time to plan and an individual approach to PD can limit school and district-level planning and coordination.  The types of professional development opportunities being offered and the frequency with which they are being offered varies widely with the exception of informal mentorship opportunities which appear to be widespread and also large-scale attendance at the now discontinued Rural Conference.  There is some evidence of rural-focused professional development but according to quantitative and qualitative data there is a need for professional resource support for differentiated instruction and assessment for multi-grades, utilizing technology, supporting special needs students, mentorship and networking, and school and/or district-level PD planning and collaboration.

The utilization of technology to enhance or expand learning opportunities also varies widely.  For those utilizing technology the majority referred to distributed learning with some mention of the Distance Education School of the Kootenays, E-Bus, the BC Learning Network, the use of distributed learning for homeschoolers, and specific software and applications including Elluminate, video conferencing, and Moodle.  Technology is also being used to expand secondary course offerings and to improve access to professional development.  Utilization appears to be dependent on a variety of factors including infrastructure, district-level planning and support, budget constraints and considerations, expertise, and reluctance of educators.  While the majority of educational leaders indicated necessary technological infrastructure was in place, a number of leaders indicated infrastructure was still not in place or varied amongst schools. There was some evidence of district-level planning and support although funding presented a challenge with respect to infrastructure and reluctance of educators to embrace technology.  More specifically, funding limitations constrain the provision and replacement of necessary infrastructure.  In addition, a fear that limited dollars would be allocated to e-learning instead of classroom teachers was reported.  Some leaders also expressed reluctance toward e-learning due to questions related to its effectiveness.  The need for improved technological expertise was presented as a factor influencing successful technological utilization.

As rural educational leaders continue to pursue ‘made in rural’ innovative approaches to educating the 21st Century learner, collaboration and sharing of best practices across schools and communities should be increased, the relevancy of teacher preparation for rural contexts should be addressed, the coordination, accessibility and relevancy of professional development opportunities should be improved, and technology should be embraced as a tool to improve access and enhance both teacher and student learning.  It is clear from the research findings that pockets of promising educational innovation exist in rural school communities across the province and that these innovations are having positive impacts on student engagement, teacher satisfaction, and local support for education.  It is also clear from the findings that more research focused on the particular social and economic challenges that rural and remote communities face should be carried out in order to align efforts toward community sustainability with relevant curriculum for students.  It is also recommended that university teacher educators join efforts to better prepare teacher candidates for possible rural careers.  Further, it is recommended that educational leaders in school, district and ministry positions find additional ways to communicate across contexts, co-construct solutions to rural challenges, and collaborate on imaginative and cost-effective means to revitalize aspects of the rural education strategy that so many respondents regarded as valuable contributions to their work.

  1. Amber Kermociev says
    03 Oct 11, 7:51am

    I found this very educational. I gave me a heavy heart to really ask myself, “am I willing to go, but also STAY?” I think that remaining in the community is a very important part of choosing to be a teacher in a rural community.

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