Rural education network launches to help isolated teachers


On an early morning late last spring about 100 educators from districts serving California’s rural areas trickled into a meeting hall in Sacramento for the inaugural launch of a network meant to address their isolation and frustration.

Among them were staff from county offices of education, school superintendents, principals and a handful of students. They hailed from as far as southern Imperial County on the Mexican border to remote northern Modoc, from Mono County to the east to Humboldt in the west.

Their common interest: Addressing what they call a crisis in rural education.

The goal of the nascent California Rural Ed Network, which launched online Oct. 1, is to join forces to attract new resources, share expertise and focus attention of policy makers to schools outside urban and suburban California — many of them underfunded and serving a preponderance of low-income students.

When Susan Hukkanen, then the Butte County Office of Education assistant superintendent, addressed the gathering to explain her proposed network, she sounded more like a preacher or a politician than a bureaucrat.

“We are asking you to join other advocates and spokespersons for a completely and overdue focus on isolated, underserved and woefully underfunded rural schools,” she beckoned. “Now is the time to raise our voices to transform our rural schools into viable hubs for their communities.”

In Hukkanen’s conversations with colleagues in other rural districts, common concerns kept popping up: They felt overlooked, under-resourced, overwhelmed by the needs of their students and families and entirely absent from statewide policy conversations.

“We don’t get the grants because we don’t have the numbers,” said Hukkanen, who came up with the idea last year for a network where educators could share resources.

Federal education officials have designated about a fifth of California’s nearly 10,000 schools as “rural” or “town” schools for purposes of data analysis. Town schools are those located at least 10 miles from an urbanized area — in places like Yucca Valley in Southern California and Oroville in Northern California.

Hukkanen’s effort to organize educators in rural California is novel but the problems are national in scope. A recent report by the National School Boards Association Center for Public Education probes the challenges faced by rural students, who make up a fifth of the nation’s total. It notes that the impact of “poverty, isolation and inequities” are exacerbated “by the lack of attention to the unique needs of this considerable student population.”

At the gathering last spring, Christine McCormick, director of student support services at Sutter County’s Office of Education, took the microphone next. McCormick helped spearhead the network’s emphasis on rooting its work in research. Its rural research panel recently began uploading a plethora of information to a searchable online resource bank.

“Tell us what you need,” she asked attendees.

And they did. As the morning unfolded, participants spoke of the lack of access to professional development. Just getting there can be challenging. Transportation costs are steep and there are no substitutes to fill in for teachers while they attend workshops. Fluctuating daily attendance wreaks havoc on district budgets. Poor or nonexistent broadband connectivity hampers students from taking online advanced placement courses and educators from relying on online instruction. Too many students don’t complete the courses they need to gain admission to California’s four-year colleges. According to the most recent report of the Rural School and Community Trust, only 22.5 percent of California’s rural high school juniors and seniors had taken the ACT or SAT test — the lowest of any state nationwide.

And almost every educator in the room who spoke lamented the unaddressed needs of their students and families, many of whom struggle with poverty.

In response to a widely distributed follow-up survey, more than seven dozen respondents from 21 rural counties prioritized their areas of deepest concern: staff and teacher recruitment; a lack of resources for students with “diverse needs,” including special education students and those from diverse backgrounds; family and student trauma; drug and alcohol abuse; and poor parent engagement.

Schools in Oroville have posted some of the highest student suspension rates in the state. The Butte County Office of Education administers state and federal grants and helps run training and student support programs in more than 40 counties across the state. Employees there are steeped in the latest educational research. But participation in regional trainings are voluntary and rural superintendents, principals and teachers — who are stretched thin — often can’t or don’t take part.

But experts on trauma say awareness is growing in rural California about the underlying challenges students — as well as rural staff and educators — face at home and how to best address them.

The turning point came after the San Francisco-based Center for Youth Wellness in 2014 conducted a survey across California to probe exposure to “adverse childhood experiences.” Studies show those experiences — among them physical, sexual or emotional abuse; and parental mental illness, addiction or incarceration — can lead to lasting physiological and emotional damage in adulthood.

Of all the counties, respondents in Butte County reported the highest rates of adverse childhood events. More than three-fourths of the adults surveyed had experienced one or more adverse childhood experiences and 30 percent reported experiencing four or more.

The results validated what many county residents had suspected. The survey also spurred the creation of Butte Thrives, a coalition run out of the Butte County offices of First 5 — a public program created in each of California’s 58 counties two decades ago to support children in the crucial first five years of life.

The coalition conducts trainings and consults with public agencies — including school districts and social service providers — about how to react to students, clients and staff through a lens that acknowledges the impact of early traumas.

“As a community we saw this data and thought, ‘This is something we can sink our teeth into,’” said Anna Bauer, a First 5 program manager who is Butte Thrives’ only paid staffer. “We certainly can’t deny it … so we need to start having a conversation about what to do about it.”

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