“It takes everybody, and here we have this opportunity to rally around a cause with like-minded people.”
As part of our ongoing celebration of the Rural Schools Innovation Grants by Compeer Financial, Amy Freitag, Director of Multilingual Learning and Grants at Monmouth-Roseville School District (MR) in Monmouth, Illinois, shared with Rural Schools Collaborative about the hard work from teachers, students, and families over the past year that led to the grant. Through this opportunity, MR is able to expand upon its capacity to engage students at school, and families at home, through student-led broadcasting and virtual programming.
Like many rural schools, Freitag tells how MR was left rushing to purchase the equipment “out of dire necessity” in order to transition into a virtual environment at the start of the pandemic. While the district was able to secure basic materials they needed, many were still left needing help setting up the equipment and learning how to use it. However, she explains, one teacher, Javier Reyes, had slowly built up a budding broadcasting club at Central Intermediate School*, and that his expertise and vision sparked the district-wide tech transformation that earned them the grant.
“In August 2020 we started the school year fully remote, and everyone was scrambling for Javier’s help wanting to purchase similar technology to what he used to get his broadcasting club up and running, and learning how to use it,” Freitag recounts. “We were trying to involve everyone in the school by doing virtual assemblies or trying to host livestream events, but the technology was so rudimentary…When you ask some of the parents where the district was when we started, they’ll tell you that it’s come a long way.”
The district persisted in improving their virtual capacity, and by channeling Reyes’ passion for allowing students to explore technology and express themselves through digital media, innovative broadcasting projects were launched for 4th through 12th grades. The results of this collective action were profound. Not only were students and teachers better able to conduct their day-to-day work, and extracurricular and team sports were made accessible to audiences at home, but Freitag also reports how it “revolutionized parent engagement” as well.
“I don’t think people realize how much parent engagement changed because of the pandemic,” Freitag says, “All of a sudden, parents were in charge of students' learning and you had to connect with families on such a deeper level in order to make learning possible.” She continues: “We thought parent-teacher or school-parent relations were essential before the pandemic, but we didn’t know what essential meant until we were completely reliant on family engagement.”
“The key to family engagement and student learning is building relationships.”
Yet it hasn’t always been easy to foster those relationships, and with the technical limitations the district faced at the outset of the pandemic that task was made all the more difficult. “The key to family engagement and student learning is building relationships,” Freitag shares, “but some families are harder to reach, so you have to figure out how to connect with them to make the education process work. Part of connecting with our families was being able to open up lines of communication through different technology channels."
As the district sought ways to build those connections, Freitag proudly shares how practices already in place by the district's English Learning teachers set the path the whole district would later take. She details how nearly 70% of MR’s student population is considered “at need,” many of which are multilingual and living in homes where English is not spoken. While these students and families are historically underserved in public school districts, Freitag beams that she “noticed our EL teachers were already a step ahead in the game with regards to parent communication. Prior to the pandemic, these teachers already had tricks up their sleeves to effectively and meaningfully communicate, like having a Facebook group for parents or using WhatsApp.”
The district wasted no time in expanding on the innovations of EL teachers, such as Javier Reyes, but in order to secure this good work, administrators and teachers alike knew they needed additional funding. Learning of the grant opportunity from RSC’s Illinois hub partners, Freitag jumped at the chance to improve the experiences of all MR’s students. After learning recently that MR was selected to receive the grant, Freitag says the district immediately contracted with a local tech company to purchase everything they needed to realize their vision:
“Now with this grant, we’re able to take this momentum we had from the past year and position ourselves better. We won’t just be at a bare minimum of capacity any more, and instead will be able to incorporate technology in meaningful ways for student enrichment and skill development.”
With quality equipment in hand, Freitag shares:
“In the short term, we want to do live broadcasting where students go out into the community and do on-the-ground research interviews. The equipment and skills learned will also be used to broadcast plays and sports events. We want to give students experience in front of a camera and presenting; we want to provide them the opportunity to learn 21st century skills.”
Overjoyed that MR was awarded the grant from Compeer, Freitag also confides that the process of getting to this point is not easy. She reflects that “other schools may have a full-time Title One director, but here I have to write all the grants we need in addition to being the director of English Learning. By nature of where we are, we all have to play numerous roles.”
Nevertheless, Freitag reveals that these challenges are necessary to provide students with the best possible educational experience, and providing that for the community is immensely rewarding personally as well: “I do feel this strong sense that these kids need us, and we need good, quality people in our schools. Every single day I get to figure out something new, and we all make it happen. It takes everybody, and here we have this opportunity to rally around a cause with likeminded people.”
Thank you again to Compeer Financial for their partnership with RSC on the Rural Schools Innovation Grants program, and to Amy Freitag and all those involved in giving back to their community!