Character formation happens over breakfast

Public school students, from Kindergarten to 12th grade, in Troy, Montana, start the day with breakfast at school and time to talk with their teachers or advisors. One high school teacher sees breakfast during the advisory period as the prime time and tool for character formation.

The Breakfast in the Classroom program, a collaboration of the Montana Food Bank Network and the state of Montana, offers breakfast to all students, regardless of income status. At the high school, breakfast during the advisory period creates a daily space where students “can build a relationship with that teacher,” Superintendent Jacob Francom told The Western News.

Francom isn’t just talking about teachers. He, too, has an advisory group he meets with every morning. And students who might already have eaten or don’t feel hungry still can sit with their classmates and join in the discussion.

Francom said the program at Troy started only in the past two years, but almost every student in the lower grades participates, as well as some high school students. Kaleb Price, a high school English teacher, enjoys getting to know his students during the advisory time. Although students are sometimes quiet, Price says teachers can use prompts from the school’s character education program to start a conversation. “I have a bunch of juniors, and so the morning time for them is rather quiet,” Price said. “But even though we don’t talk a lot, I think it’s a good time for them just to mentally focus.”

Character Strong has directions for Advisory periods like those in Troy.

That initiative taken by teachers and administrators is important, says Richard Fournier, rural schools researcher for the School Cultures and Student Formation Project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Fournier’s findings appear in The Content of Their Character, where he describes the rural schools he studied across the United States. “[M]any of the ways students were positively or negatively influenced was dependent on the type of teacher or school administrators in charge of delivering the message.” If the adults don’t take initiative, it doesn’t happen.

In Troy, however, there is strong leadership straight from the superintendent. Regarding the conversations that happen during advisory, Francom told The Western News: “I mean, that’s what character education really comes down to . . . making good choices, whether now or choices that will affect them in their future, or making plans and goals for their future.”

Future Farmers of America chapter creates leaders

Despite burgeoning urban populations, Future Farmers of America (FFA) demonstrated record involvement this year with about 680,000 members. In Tenino, Washington, the student-led FFA chapter is building community leaders.

Geraldine Maxfield, the local agriculture teacher and head of the FFA chapter, told the Thurston Talk that she sees the club’s role extending beyond the development of interest or skill in agriculture: “I’m a firm believer that when kids leave here, they are going to be good citizens.”

Maxfield, a Tenino native and graduate of Chico State (CA), has been running the FFA for almost 25 years. The organization has been a near constant presence in her own life, as she was an active participant throughout her own high school and college education.

According to the FFA website, the organization’s mission is to make “a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education.” Tenino’s chapter is just one of 8,500 nationally.

Educators are increasingly finding that it is easier to motivate students when learning is seen to have consequences outside of academic grades. Hence, the recent surge of interest in service-learning projects. Maxfield says of FFA, “The idea is that they are taking what they are learning in the classroom and applying it outside.” It turns out that students relish the opportunity to take responsibility for their own learning and the community’s well being.

In Tenino, FFA members participate in a range of activities throughout the year, many of which involve community service: running a community garden, hosting a holiday wreath sale to raise donations for a local charity, collecting food donations, and even constructing a house for the Seattle homeless. All these various projects really are student-led. Maxfield provides direction for the students, but ultimately she says, “it’s all about providing opportunities to plan and organize.”

The chapter also takes students on several field trips each year. These trips include stops at colleges so that students can explore environments where they could continue to build and refine their skills. “To help them become productive members of society, they need to have something to offer to the community. Whether it’s learning a trade or going to college,” says Maxfield.

This likely sums up why Maxfield, and subsequently the chapter she stewards, have been so successful. She is firm in her belief that educators need to be thinking of their students as citizens as well as scholars, and she gives them countless opportunities to develop in both facets.

Rural students like those in Tenino are no small part of American education; they comprise 28.9% of all non-charter public school students.  The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture studied rural schools as part of the School Cultures and Student Formation Project to better understand how schools and organizations like FFA interact. Editors James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson write in The Content of Their Character “Character in [rural schools] involved strong links to the local community and thus the obligation to represent one’s community well.”

In Tenino, FFA is one of those strong links to the community.

For rural communities, keeping the leaders that they develop is a perennial challenge. Maxfield isn’t worried. She grew up in Tenino and returned to Tenino to teach agriculture. Living to Serve is one way that FFA equips students to serve their communities. They provide a planning guide that anyone can use to put together a service learning project.

Maine non-profit targets needs of rural schools

A Maine nonprofit is taking a new approach to education in three rural Washington County schools where many students struggle with adverse childhood experiences—problems often tied to poverty that hinder learning.

The Cobscook Community Learning Center launched its Transforming Rural Experience in Education (TREE) program this year at three elementary schools in Milbridge, Jonesport, and Charlotte, among the poorest areas of the state. Recent research in urban schools shows that students who experience trauma tend to struggle in school, and vast resources are dedicated to addressing the challenges arising from these struggles. But students in rural schools who experience similar trauma are often overlooked.

TREE’s efforts focus on helping poor rural students struggling with the same problems through a partnership with education researchers at Colby College and the University of Maine, and with the support of $1.3 million in foundation funding, the Bangor Daily News reports.

Laura Thomas, a former Milbridge Elementary teacher who now works as a coach for TREE, said the program starts with a simple question: “What are kids coming to school with besides just their backpacks?”

According to the Daily News:

The program isn’t just about poverty or drug addiction or hunger or special education or student performance or life expectancy. It’s about all of it. It’s about all the ways families and children in the area may fall on tough times, the trauma that causes, and the ways a school of 115 students can help kids overcome that trauma and learn.

TREE’s plan is to demonstrate through full-time coaches how schools can better respond to misbehaving students who may have experienced trauma, and improve academics by helping students work through their issues. The program is also working to help students access dental care.

The approach is one of many “trauma-informed” school initiatives based on recent research into how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) impact health and brain development, behavior, and learning. ACEs include a wide range of experiences that lead to stress, from surviving or witnessing verbal, sexual, or physical abuse, to chronic hunger, traumatic divorces, or parents addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Research from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and others suggest ACEs contribute to long term health problems including obesity and heart disease, and make it more likely for students to engage in risky behaviors.

Research shows students with at least three types of adverse childhood experiences are more likely than peers with less trauma in their past to experience depression, consider suicide, smoke cigarettes, and drink alcohol. The 2017 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey revealed “31 percent of Washington County students recorded at least three adverse childhood experiences . . . the second highest rate among the state’s 16 counties.”

“When we think about all the challenges we’re having in education, how much of it goes back to ACEs and never having done anything that addresses that in schools?” TREE Director Brittany Ray questioned.

The trauma-informed approach has proved successful in improving student performance and decreasing conflicts and disciplinary problems by increasing mental health care in inner-city schools, and TREE officials are hoping for similar success in the rural settings.

“Most of the education reform work has been done in urban settings,” Colby College education professor Mikel Brown, a member of the TREE research team, told the Daily News. “Rural schools do not have the same access to everything, from nonprofit support to transportation.”

Richard Fournier, lead researcher of character formation in rural schools for the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture’s recent School Cultures and Student Formation Project, pointed out in The Content of Their Character:

In general, rural school teachers and administrators face the same tasks as urban districts: to increase academic performance among students and prepare them for social and economic life despite their communities’ frequent issues with poverty, drugs, unemployment, and other socioeconomic obstacles. The schools’ tasks are difficult, and rural schools have unique features that both further and hinder these goals.

The work of TREE and similar organizations often doesn’t make the news because its focused in small towns, but it’s essential to the social fabric of rural communities that comprise more than nine million American students.

The Rural Schools Collaborative provides a place for rural educators with promising practices in this important sector of American education to share their experiences and help others along the way.

Small class sizes lure teachers to rural schools

Montana’s rural school districts are struggling to recruit and retain teachers, but administrators from small schools are pitching the benefits of a more intimate school culture to appeal to potential hires.

Funding challenges, geographic isolation, and difficulty hiring out-of-state teachers has hampered efforts by rural school administrators to draw in new talent, complicating what’s already a “Critical Quality Educator Shortage” across the state.

But officials from dozens of rural schools recently trekked to Montana State University to discuss the benefits of small schools with future educators, in hopes that some may consider the option.

The Billings Gazette outlined the problem:

Pay for beginning teachers in Montana is the lowest in the nation, and small schools typically pay less than larger districts. Factors like geographic and professional isolation play a role, and many rookie teachers feel unprepared for rural schools. Montana has a stringent process for out-of-state teachers obtaining Montana certification.

At MSU, rural administrators from across the state spoke with students about life, professional development, and financial situations, but continuously stressed the biggest benefit for small schools—an intimate culture that allows educators to have a bigger impact by working with fewer students.

“It’s easy to control five kids in a senior math class,” Colstrip Principal Aaron Skogen told the Gazette. “In smaller classes, you know those kids in a different way.”North Start superintendent Bart Hawkins joked that “if you like going to weddings, teach in a small school.”“That’s the kind of relationships you build with the kids,” he said.

Education researcher Richard Fournier also noted how rural schools bolster character formation as part of the School Cultures and Student Formation Project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

Fournier documented his field research in The Content of Their Character, a new book set for publication in February.

“One got the feeling in each of these schools that because ‘everybody knows everybody,’ these school communities often provided students with deep-rooted loyalties and convictions, however parochial, that bonded each member to the character and citizenship traits so vital to each community’s moral orientation.”

It’s a unique dynamic of rural schools that’s undoubtedly attractive to many teachers: small classes mean educators bond with students and their families in ways teachers in suburban and urban schools find it harder to do.

Educators working in rural schools, or considering the option, can find more information and support through the Rural Teacher Corps, a network of rural teachers who share their stories to learn from each other.

How one rural school is overcoming the challenges of college readiness

Education research is revealing the troubling reasons why rural students are less likely to go to college, but some schools are banding together to buck the trend.

The Hechinger Report’s Jon Marcus and Matt Krupnick recently pointed out the troubling trend with rural students who, whether because of cost, culture shock, or a sense of hopelessness, just don’t want to go to college.

“It’s not that rural students aren’t academically prepared. They score better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than urban students and graduate from high school at a higher percentage than the national average, the U.S. Department of Education reports,” according to the education site.

“Yet even the highest-income white students from rural areas are less likely to go to college right from high school than their well-off white city and suburban counterparts, according to the National Student Clearing House, which tracks this: 61 percent of graduates from high-income, predominantly white schools enrolled immediately in higher education, comparted to 72 percent from urban schools and 74 percent from suburban ones.”

Dustin Gordon, who grew up in Sharpsburg, Iowa—a town with a population of 89, contends “there’s just no motivation for people to go” to college.

“When they’re ready to be done with high school, they think, ‘That’s all the school I need, and I’m just going to go and find a job,” he said.

But some schools are setting a new example by working together.

According to The Christian Science Monitor:

Meadowbrook High School in Byesville, Ohio, part of the Rolling Hills school district, operates in a county beset by declining population and low-wage jobs. The median household income is 24 percent lower than that of the nation as a whole and fewer than 14 percent of adults have a four-year college degree. School officials say that 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a measure of poverty.

Yet Meadowbrook, which serves 490 students from across a sprawling 128-square-mile district, is thriving when it comes to graduation rates and participation in higher-ed. In just a few years, the school has managed to create a culture in which going to college is becoming the norm rather than the exception. 

The change is tied to the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative, an effort involving 21 districts working together to provide the same access to dual enrollment courses and postsecondary opportunities as urban and suburban schools.

“We’ve seen tremendous success,” superintendent Ryan Caldwell told the news site. “We think the impact is going to be tremendous for this community.”

In essence, rural communities in Ohio and elsewhere are banding together to motivate students to pursue higher education, through fundraising and encouragement to enroll in dual-enrollment classes.

University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, wrote about the impact communities have on education, and moral education specifically, in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America.

Moral education can work where the community, and schools and other institutions within it, share a moral culture that is integrated and mutually reinforcing; where the social networks of adult authority are strong, unified, and consistent in articulating moral ideals and their attending virtues; and where adults maintain ‘caring watchfulness’ over all aspects of a young person’s maturation.

Meadowbrook is engaging the whole community and others in the same situation to motivate students to succeed. And they’re creating role models for future students to look up to.

The Jubilee Centre and others offer lessons for educators to help students build determination through a focus on the people who inspire them, from celebrities, to teachers, to classmates heading off to college.