One of Rural School Collaborative’s Governing Board members, Dr. Tamara La Prad, and RSC Partnerships Manager, John Glasgow, drove to Indianapolis to attend the University of Indianapolis Center for Excellence in Leadership of Learning’s (CELL) spring 2023 meeting for their cutting-edge Rural Early College Network (RECN) program. After a brief presentation to share more about Rural Schools Collaborative and its relationship with CELL, this one-day event offered Dr. La Prad and John a priceless opportunity to witness some of the good work happening across rural Indiana.
CELL is the lead for RSC’s Indiana and Great Lakes Regional Hub, and has steadily been developing their program reach and organizational commitment to the empowerment of rural schools and students across the region. One such outcome of their rural work was a multi-year, $7.9 million federal Education Innovation & Research grant awarded by the US Department of Education in 2019 to “help rural high schools implement high quality, sustainable Early College programs through a system of supports, coaching and a network approach.”
The RECN program began in 2019 by recruiting five rural high schools across different regions of Indiana. RECN Director, Dr. Janet Boyle explained that CELL has recruited five more schools into the program each year since, resulting in a robust network of twenty high schools to-date, collaborating to improve their course offerings and stimulate the state’s college-going rate among rural students. Additionally, she shares, the original five participants have become “mentor schools,” which are then paired with three onboarding schools in different regions of the state to form a “quad.”
This intentional community building around program growth has resulted in impressive gains for students and schools alike. Dr. Jeremy Eltz, RSC Regional Hub Contact and CELL’s Director of Rural Education, reports that there’s been noteworthy excitement not only from each of the twenty high schools participating in the project, but the hometown communities they serve as well. He shared how in recent years having your local school selected to join the prestigious cohort has become a point of town pride, with some communities decorating the school with banners and other towns posting signs on major roads announcing their new Early College status.
Over the course of the meeting, a number of educators were invited to share some of the outcomes their Early College work has garnered. One announced proudly that “this is our first year awarding associate degrees, and 82% of our students will be graduating with some sort of college credit, including eleven students fully earning their associates.” Another educator reported that “52% of our teachers are credentialed to teach early college courses, and 33% of seniors will graduate having completed their ICC [Indiana College Core],” a set of thirty credit hour courses transferable between all Indiana public colleges and universities. A final attendee happily shared that “48% of kids at our school will have earned over fifteen dual credit hours by the time they graduate.”
While facilitating the proliferation of Early College programs has remained the core focus of RECN, Dr. Eltz has also worked to introduce this network of rural schools to place-based education. Coming to this work with a background in classroom science instruction and STEM curriculum, he understands first hand the importance of project-based and place-informed instruction on student engagement and academic outcomes. After seeing the impact place-based education has had on other schools within RSC’s Regional Hub Network, Eltz returned to CELL’s budding network of engaged rural partners to spearhead a statewide push for PBE. Although a brand new effort, a number of educators at RECN’s meeting were able to report back on the outstanding work their students have already accomplished:
Megan Hawkins, an engineering teacher at Shoals High School, worked with her engineering and agriculture students to research, design, and construct interactive signs along a local walking trail. Students have been conducting this work in partnership with Sycamore Land Trust, a local environmental organization. Megan shared that “being a volunteer in the community myself, I appreciate what this experience is teaching kids about their community.”
Kayla Gerlach, an English teacher from Sheridan High School, led an interdisciplinary historical marker project where students researched and designed signs relaying local history. These were then translated into Spanish by the school’s Spanish-speaking students. Gerlach reflected that the goal of the project all along had been to “get kids invested in the town and what’s going on around them.”
Rising Sun High School was the final place-based education spotlight at the RECN meeting, and it featured two incredible efforts. Ashley Bowling, a history teacher, synchronized with a community initiative to restore a local historic library to have her Indiana History students create explanatory plaques, curate an advertising campaign, and create QR codes to bring the new museum to life. Students were able to situate the new collection of local artifacts within their community’s history, and then used their findings to train younger peers to lead tours of the museum to community members. While Bowling worked at the local museum, Andrea Levi, a science teacher, partnered with a world-famous harp manufacturer in the town to learn about the mechanics and science behind harps. In the process, students not only gained a hands-on understanding of scientific principles, but witnessed how their place had redefined the musical world by the instruments and innovations their neighbors were producing. In both cases, the teachers were passionate about connecting community history with students. Levi remarked that “before we did this project, my students couldn’t wait to just get out of school. But now, they surprised me with their energy and effort to stay in and do this project.”
With a strong network of ardent collaborators, the CELL team is looking forward to entering the final year of RECN’s grant period with a focus on professional development and program growth. Although the program’s pilot phase is coming to a close, the palpable enthusiasm seen during this spring meeting will continue to spread out into other districts around the state, and further showcase the sure benefits from a committed focus on collaboration, place-conscious instruction, and rural student success.
Thank you to our Indiana & Great Lakes Regional Hub Partners at CELL, and the whole RECN Network, for your generosity to host Dr. La Prad and John, and sharing your good work and aspirations with them.
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