How 4 rural districts worked together to keep students in-person

Leaders of four small Wisconsin districts find strength by collaborating around their response to the pandemic
By: | February 8, 2021
Small, rural systems, such as the the Blair-Taylor School District in Wisconsin, have taken advantage of their size to keep students in classrooms all school year.Rural systems, such as the the Blair-Taylor School District in Wisconsin, have been able to keep students in classrooms all school year.

Rural school districts face a range of challenges but one advantage for many of these small systems has been an ability to remain open for in-person instruction throughout the pandemic.

Leaders of four small districts in rural western Wisconsin have found additional strength by collaborating around their response to the pandemic as part of the Trempealeau Valley Cooperative.

“This summer, we realized that right away that it was imperative that we open if our rural economies we’re going to survive, if our families we’re going to be able to go to work,” says Lance Bagstad, district administrator  for the School District of Arcadia.

Students have been in class this whole school year in Arcadia and the other three members of the co-op, Blair-Taylor School District, Independence School District and the Whitehall School District.

More from DA: 2 small districts confront challenges of COVID and rural America

“When you leverage the ability and the professionalism of all of our staff, that gives us the ability to handle this a little better than to try to do it all by ourselves,” says Mike Beighley, superintendent of the Whitehall School District. “We’ve built brand new models for providing instruction, we’ve brought live video into classrooms, and coop gives us the ability to share classes even more so than before,” Beighley says.

For example, students from Independence, the smallest of the districts, participate in Whitehall’s food and consumer science courses and in Blair-Taylor’s welding program. Independence is sharing at health teacher with Whitehall.

“One of challenges has been to finding qualified staffing in cert had-to-fill areas,” says Barry Schmitt, Independence’s district administrator. “The technical education areas have been a challenge as well some of the STEM areas. Even English is getting difficult to fill.”

The size of co-op has also allowed the districts’ leaders to develop more substantial partnerships with businesses and higher education in the region, says Bagstad, of Arcadia.

“If a large business looks at any one of us, we’re pretty small entities to invest in,” Bagstad says. “But the four of us together, that’s a lot of more an opportunity to get a return on investment.When they look at us together, it’s several hundred students at our high schools.”

Lasting COVID innovations

COVID has made teachers at each district more comfortable with remote learning and other new approaches, says Jeff Eide, superintendent of the Blair-Taylor School District.

The districts will share teachers who are now certified to teach college-level courses, Edie says.

“As a co-op, we’re working together instead of taking money from each other,” he says.

The collaboration will allow the districts to offer “big school opportunities in small systems,” such as apprenticeships, says Beighley, of Whitehall.

“Prior to the co-op, we competed for kids,” Beighley says. “The education model in our country tells us we ought to be competing for kids. We flew in the face of that, and said, ‘Lets’ do better for all kids.'”

More from DA: How COVID magnifies a rural district’s challenges

The four district leaders say they will continue to offer online learning for students. Educators will continue to record classes so students—particularly those who have thrived under online instruction—have more flexibility in their learning, including an ability to re-watch lessons, they say.

Recordings also will give teachers and other staff more opportunities to watch themselves and reflect on their practices alongside their colleagues in the collaborative, Bagstad says.

On the health, educators are even more aware of the importance of students’ social-emotional learning needs, he adds.

“When we’ve had kids in quarantine or isolation, those kids are champing at bit to get back to school because they feel like they’re missing out,” Bagstad says. “It has really heightened our awareness of the mental health challenges that our kids face.”