Twenty five years ago, I applied for a job as an assistant football coach in Alberton MT, roughly 45 miles west of Missoula MT. As I walked into the school I couldn’t stop smiling, I had been to “small” schools before, but this was my first experience with Class “C” Montana. My experience in Alberton encouraged me to go back to school and become a teacher. Ever since that time I have spent the majority of my life in Class “C” sized schools throughout the west. Each one had their own unique challenges and strengths. What they had in common is that they have been able to produce lawyers, doctors, engineers, and teachers as well as college basketball, volleyball, and football players and let’s not forget about the ranchers, farmers, electricians, and plumbers.
Class “C” Montana was not my experience growing up and most likely as a parent/guardian of a Gardiner School student, it wasn’t your experience either. And, if you are a long time resident or at least a 10 year resident, your experience with Gardiner School has been, that it is changing. Changing, it most definitely is. Often when I hear about these changes, it is in a negative light. And, while some things are lost there is much to gain. Most Class “C” schools don’t have the advantage of sending their kids to a school to work program with anyone, let alone with Xanterra and the National Park Service. Most Class “C” schools don’t have in house Advanced Placement (AP) courses; we offer 3 (AP) courses as well as a Dual Credit (DC) course.
As our funding has become equalized with other Class “C” schools in the state we are more like other rural Montana schools. And rural schools face some definite disadvantages, however as we will find out, Gardiner is special once again.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Section 5005 Report of Rural Education:
“While rural students perform well on some measures compared to their peers in other locales, other measures indicate rural areas may be falling behind. Rural fourth- and eighth-grade students outperformed their counterparts in cities and towns on NCES’s 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in mathematics and reading. However, there was no significant difference between rural students’ performance and those of their peers in cities and towns on the 12th-grade assessments in mathematics and reading.”
Secondly, the study found:
“The percentage of rural adults 25 and over who have graduated from high school is roughly equal to the national average and exceeds those of city and town adults. Yet the percentage of adults in cities and suburbs who have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher exceeds the percentage of rural adults with this level of education by more than 10 percentage points.”
While I don’t have the empirical data to back it up, I don’t believe this is true of Gardiner School students and parents. However, as the park has fewer families sending their children to school and the year round population changes from that of families to retirees and vacation rental homeowners, this is something that is subject to change. We may already be seeing this shift occurring. If we are, the news is good; our test data has not fluctuated significantly as one may conclude it would from the Department of Education’s findings.
Another concern outlined in the report was:
“While rural LEAs face many of the same obstacles confronting urban districts (such as high rates of childhood poverty, difficulty recruiting and retaining effective teachers and administrators, and limited access to quality health care), these challenges frequently can be exacerbated by the remoteness and small size of rural districts.”
Poverty seems to be the great indicator of lower academics. While it doesn’t guarantee lower academic achievement, it is a major hurdle. One of the metrics used to indicate poverty in a school is the percentage of students on the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. The national average approaches 50%, with Montana at about 40%. Gardiner has always had a low Free and Reduced Lunch count, and currently sits around 10%. Teacher retention, until the most recent opening for a music teacher, has not been an issue as our entire staff consists of tenured teachers. That is, all staff have at least four years teaching experience in the district. Without doing the math, it would be easy to estimate that our “average” teacher has closer to 12 to 15 years experience in the district. Consistency among teachers and administration has significant impact on student performance, as the expectations, goals, and vision of the school/classroom remain the same.
“Other difficulties typically unique to rural areas include transportation challenges resulting from longer distances between students’ homes and their schools; fewer career options and apprenticeship opportunities for students”
As I mentioned earlier, Gardiner is clearly in a different position when it comes to these opportunities than other Class “C” schools. We have students working in Xanterra shops, in NPS shops, with NPS scientists, at the Heritage Center, and with community businesses. Imagine the opportunity to do real time science with NPS employees. We are going out of our way to create and allow these opportunities as they present themselves.
“ the inability to attract, train, and retain teachers and principals in communities with fewer amenities and activities than urban and suburban areas”
This is yet another retention issue, one that hopefully like for most of us our interests align with our amazing setting, and our “place” does the recruiting. Many of our previous applicants, applied in part due to the outdoor opportunities Gardiner presents. This will be a trend that continues, but I don’t believe will overcome the national teacher shortage, especially in hard to fill areas such as music, special education, and the like.
“a tax base more susceptible to fluctuations caused by changes in local and regional economic conditions; and an inability to offer advanced courses that better prepare students for college and careers.”
Once again Gardiner is unique, as our tax base seems to be more stable than say a community relying mainly on logging, farming, or mining. The park remains a stable attraction that keeps our community relatively stable by comparison. As far as the advance courses, as mentioned earlier we do offer both AP and DC courses. Currently, we have 3 AP and 1 DC courses. We have attempted to offer 2 other DC courses in science, but due to the lack of interest on student behalf have not been able to go through with teaching those courses. Attached to this newsletter you will find the most current Gardiner School AP test data. A “passing” score (3) on AP exams is achieved by roughly 60% of students taking AP exams, and it is estimated that about 25% of students take an AP exam. As you can see we far exceed the passing rate, and 19 out of 65 total high school students took AP tests last year. That exceeds the 25% of all high school students that eventually take an AP test. I did not calculate what percentage of our students that graduate take at least one AP course, but seeing that over 25% of our entire school took one AP class last year it would be easy to estimate we exceed the national average.
“Adding to these challenges is the reality that each rural community is distinct. There are vast contrasts between and among rural communities in different states, and even within states. Communities in Appalachian West Virginia are very different from those in the Nevada desert. Circumstances in the mountains of western Colorado vary greatly from those in the plains of the eastern part of the state. Some rural communities are among the poorest in the nation, while others lack sufficient workers to fill the available jobs. Rural communities occupy every point on the boom-and-bust cycle. “Rural” is not a monolith but a compilation of thousands of unique communities and circumstances.”
My experience and most likely your experience were not like what our kids in Gardiner have today. Judging success on our preconceived notion of what school should be is not a fair standard. Our students enjoy the benefits of forming meaningful relationships with their peers and teachers. I have actually had students come from large school to Gardiner only to tell me that students are not supposed to talk with their principal, because that is a bad thing. Gardiner School may not be what your school or my school was, it may not even be the school it was 10 years ago, but it offers everything a student needs to succeed beyond high school whether it be in career or college, and a whole lot that no other school in the country can offer.