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Empowering Rural Educators with Networks and Data

By Jacqueline Raphael and Nettie Legters | April 2, 2019


Jacqueline Raphael
Jacqueline Raphael is a practice expert in system improvement at Education Northwest. She has extensive experience in facilitating constructive dialogue and professional development among stakeholders to improve alignment between secondary and postsecondary education systems.

When Teachers Connect, Students Thrive

That belief is at the heart of the Northwest Rural Innovation and Student Engagement (NW RISE) Network. Twice a year, NW RISE brings together educators from rural and remote communities to learn from one another, develop strategies to meet their unique challenges, and spread best practices.

Many NW RISE members consider these convenings, as well as ongoing virtual collaboration, the best professional development available to rural educators in our region.

According to one member, "It has a huge impact, being able to connect with teachers that are just like us."

Harnessing the Power of Data

NW RISE recently formed a partnership with REL Northwest to build members' capacity to use data and evidence to support inquiry-based improvement cycles.

A key source of data is the network's student engagement survey, which NW RISE districts administer in the fall and spring.

Nettie Legters
Nettie Legters leads and supports research and technical assistance projects focused on school improvement, dropout prevention, and college readiness and access at Education Northwest. Previously, she served as a lead developer and evaluator of middle and high school reform initiatives as co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

At a convening last November in Portland, Oregon, two network leaders gave presentations on how student survey data have focused and strengthened teacher collaboration in their districts.

"The survey gave our students a voice, and we responded that if our students aren't engaged, we need to adjust our practice until they are," says Rob Spriggs, K–8 principal at Glenns Ferry School District in Glenns Ferry, Idaho.

The district's responses included a three-year staff development plan focused on improving student engagement and social and emotional learning (SEL).

In addition, Glenns Ferry scheduled the professional learning opportunities so that two neighboring NW RISE districts, Idaho City and Garden Valley, could join. The three districts formed a professional learning community and held follow-up meetings to develop implementation plans and report on progress.

As result of these and other activities, Glenns Ferry saw student engagement improve. Further, the district was recognized by the Idaho State Department of Education for outstanding performance in student engagement and SEL.

NW RISE's student engagement survey also served as a launch point for improvement in Cusick, Washington. According to Cynthia Johnston, special services director for Cusick School District, the survey data helped shed light on root causes of the district's chronic absenteeism problem.

"We already had access to discipline, student achievement, and attendance data, but [the survey data showed us] we needed to do something to build engagement and address the social-emotional learning needs of our students," Johnston says.

Through collaborative reflection on the data, Cusick teachers recognized that the stress of working to increase student achievement had reduced the number of fun and engaging activities for students.

In response, the district now collaborates with the U.S. Forest Service and the Kalispel Tribe on a popular annual field trip for middle school students. Other new activities include Cusick's biannual "writing day," a community interview project, and a half-day fair of teacher-led activities designed to reinforce sense of belonging at school.

These efforts are already making an impact; a recent student survey showed rising levels of engagement, and staff and community members speak of a renewed energy districtwide.

Taking Next Steps

Following the presentations from Spriggs and Johnston at the NW RISE convening, REL Northwest provided coaching on ways districts can use student engagement survey data to support improvement, as well as ways they can boost response rates to ensure their results are representative of their students' experiences.

Based on what they learned at the convening, district leaders made the unprecedented request to keep the administration window open longer for fall NW RISE student engagement surveys so that they could increase their response rates.

Stay tuned for more from this partnership between NW RISE and REL Northwest, including a study of several member districts that examines the relationship between student engagement and achievement, as well as variations in engagement among student groups.