Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Leveling the Playing Field in Rural South Dakota: A Conversation with Superintendent Susan Smit

obriena's picture

We hear a lot about urban schools—their performance, the challenges they face, how we can make them better. We don’t hear nearly as much about rural schools, despite the fact that almost half of our public schools are rural and about a third of America's students attend these schools.

Rural schools face challenges similar to urban schools (such as poverty and high mobility rates), as well as unique challenges related to attracting and retaining staff, capacity to apply for large competitive grants, access (or lack thereof) to providers of supplemental educational services and more. 

But there are a number of successful schools and districts that are overcoming these challenges and helping rural students meet their potential. South Dakota’s Wagner School District is one such place. The district, located next to the Yankton Sioux Reservation, has one school that serves grades pre-K through 12. Its diverse student population is overwhelmingly poor. It has a high mobility rate.

Yet students in Wagner graduate at a higher rate than others in South Dakota. And Native American and high school students outperform their peers across the state on standardized assessments.

Critical to the district’s success is technology. By embracing initiatives ranging from a one-to-one laptop program to online AP courses to iPod touches that help differentiate instruction for kindergarteners, this district is truly using technology to enhance student learning.

Wagner Superintendent Susan Smit recently told us more about this remarkable district.

Wagner: A Rural, Diverse District

Public School Insights: Tell me about the Wagner School District.

Smit: Wagner is located in rural South Dakota, along the Missouri River at the base of the state. It’s a beautiful part of the United States.

We get federal impact aid under Title VIII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We're right next to the Yankton Sioux Reservation, which is a checkerboard reservation. It was one land mass at one time, but pieces have been sold by different entities through the years and now it's a checkerboard. One piece of land may be reservation, the piece next to it may not be.

We're a rural community with changing demographics and a diverse population. The two primary demographics are Native American and non-Indian. When I came here six years ago, we were under 50 percent Native American. Now we are at 63 percent. That is the fastest-growing student demographic.

One of our goals is to retain Native American students in our high school. In the past many high school students have gone to other districts, gone to boarding school, or moved out of state. Keeping them has been a real challenge. But we’re doing it. Six years ago our high school was 29 percent Native American students. It is now 44 percent. And we're really proud that we’re doing it while maintaining rigor. This year we are a Distinguished High School under the Title I program.

Public School Insights: How many schools are in the district?

Smit: We have one school. It is pre-K through 12. Five years ago we built an addition specifically so we could have an early learning center, because we knew our kids weren't coming to school ready to learn. This year we have about 139 3 and 4 year olds who come four days a week for half a day at no cost. We also house about 75 kindergartners in that early learning center. We're building from the ground up.

That’s one end of our building. Then we have an elementary school, grades 1 through 4. Then a middle school, grades 5 through 8; and a high school, 9 through 12. But we're all under one roof. We've just added a commons and a kitchen area. We've been eating from a small kitchen, on our gym floor, for the past 35 years. And we have another project starting, an addition that will house a business office area. When the new project is done, we'll have about 300,000 square feet under one roof.

We have about 70 certified staff members and about 70 classified staff members. So in total, about 140 people working, from custodians to cooks to teachers to paraprofessionals to administrators. Our goal is to keep classrooms small—we use our Title I money to keep class sizes at 17 and 18 kids. And we have about four sections of each class, all the way through grade 8.

With teachers, we've tried hard. We know teachers are underpaid, especially in South Dakota. A year ago we had third highest base salary in the state. And we’re fortunate with our staff. They're highly qualified.

Public School Insights: What is academic performance like in the district?

Smit: This is the first year in six years that we've been put in School Improvement I, for our elementary and middle schools. The pace of growth in South Dakota [required to make Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind] is speeding up as we approach the 2014 goal [of having all students proficient in math and reading]. But are we hopeful we're going to make progress this year? We are.

In general, our Native American students do better than other Native American students in the state. And as you can see from our Distinguished School status, our high school students do very well.

But it takes a lot of effort, and a lot of money. We've spent a lot of money on RTI [Response to Intervention]. We have invested in programs such as AIMSweb and Orchard that are tutors and help with data analysis. We're working on a data warehouse that we hope to have in place relatively soon.

We believe we have what it takes to help kids, but we live in a very high poverty area. We’re at 68 percent free and reduced meals. And poverty really is the underlying factor in a lot of kids not being able to do what they need to do at the appropriate time. Sometimes it just takes them longer. I wish our federal government would consider that and say, "It's okay not to get through fourth grade in one year; sometimes you need longer. It's okay not to graduate in four years; sometimes five is okay." But that isn't necessarily the way they calculate success.

Our kids sometimes start out a little slow, and it takes a little longer for them to catch up. That was the purpose of our early learning center. And it's been a purpose of all of the technology we’re using to try to equalize the playing field for all kids.

Using Technology to Level the Playing Field

Public School Insights: Earlier you mentioned the district’s success in retaining high school students who historically would have gone elsewhere. How have you done that?

Smit: We believe technology has been a critical piece in retention of our students. The high school students tell us one thing that helped is our one-to-one laptop initiative, which we started four years ago because we felt our Native American kids were disadvantaged in that area. And while some students don't have Internet at home, we've made this work. We have kids stay after school and use their laptops in our commons area. That initiative is one of the most important things we’ve done.

Another thing we’ve done is hire a cultural integrationist, a certified counselor who works with our staff to integrate culture into the day-to-day curriculum. And a lot of that is done through technology, the rich resources that are available online.

We have students taking AP classes online—I think 33 classes this year. We have an alternative ed program. It used to be housed outside of our walls, but there were so many kids going back and forth, coming here to take, for example, biology and leaving to take an alternative class somewhere else, that we just said, "Hey." And we renovated part of our school, making it more of a library. We have two teachers stationed there, working with kids who are doing credit recovery and kids who are doing AP or other online classes.

We have really tried to turn alternative education around, from being “It's for kids who can't make it” to “It's for anybody who’s trying to do a class in a different way.” And we think that's been very successful.

One other thing we added a year ago that we think is successful the program Jobs For America's Graduates. I think it's in 30-some states. It starts in the middle school and goes through high school. It has been fantastic. Ordinarily, kids in poverty don't have many opportunities for leadership and community service. And that's part of this program. It looks at career and future, leadership and service, and then makes sure you're doing as well as you can with your academics.

So those are the things we're leveraging in our school to help kids stay with us. And also, I think, to fight that challenge of poverty that many of them face.

Public School Insights: How have you found the money to pay for some of these initiatives, like the one-to-one laptop initiative?

Smit: We are fortunate in that Title VIII Impact Aid helps us with funding. We're very careful not to squander it.

With the laptops, kids keep their computers for four years, which is kind of one extra year—we think the life of a computer is about three years. We fund that through our capital outlay money. We don't have general fund money for it, but we have capital outlay money.

Public School Insights: You mentioned that you have students taking AP classes online now. Does that mean that prior to offering online classes there were no AP classes in Wagner?

Smit: We had one AP class. But now we have kids taking psychology and sociology from Mount Marty College. We have kids taking online courses through the ESA (Educational Services of America), the Educational Services Unit.

And we have Power Learning, a grant that TIE [Technology and Innovation in Education] has. A student who receives a 3 or better on an AP exam receives a $100 stipend. The teacher of record from afar gets a $100 stipend. And the in-house teacher who supported them gets a $100 stipend. That little program has made for the fact that we have 33 classes being taken in Power Learning this year.

So all kinds of little incentives are, I think, helpful in retention, but overall technology makes it work.

Public School Insights: Do you have any concerns about online courses, like the fact that there isn't a teacher right in front of the students?

Smit: We couldn't get a Spanish teacher two years ago. But DDN [Digital Dakota Network] connects all schools in South Dakota. A teacher was stationed in a booth in the state capital all day long, and she transmitted Spanish live [over that network] to our kids for two years. We had a paraprofessional in the classroom. This year she left, and we were able to hire a person in the classroom.

Do I think that it's better to have a teacher in front of the class? I do. But did our kids lose Spanish for two years? No, they didn't.

I think you have to weigh all the possibilities. Sometimes you get a teacher from afar who is better than a teacher you would put in front of a student just to have a body there. So you weigh all the options and find which one works best under your circumstances.

More of What Works

Public School Insights: Does your district offer career and technical education?

Smit: We do. About three years ago, we spent a half a million dollars and created a career and technical education lab. It has about 50 modules. Middle school students pick out several they're interested in. Then they’re randomly paired up to work on a module and explore a career—hydraulics, architecture, whatever. I went in one day and they were making impressions of their teeth. They test…not real urine samples, but what would be urine samples to try to identify diabetes and things like that. It's fantastic.

We also have agriculture and shop. Right now the landscaping class is landscaping the new addition on our school. We have home economics, now called FACS—Family and Consumer Science. And we are moving to that being CTE-accredited—it is this year. We're moving to a program called ProStart, a career food service class. We are invested in moving in business classes to a more entrepreneurship model. So we have some CTE, and we're moving towards more. We think it is a value-added opportunity for kids.

Public School Insights: Your graduation rate is above the state average, so it seems you're doing things that engage kids and make them want to stay in the school.

Smit: Yes, but we still struggle to keep our Native American students. We have 219 students in high school. We should have about 250, because we had about 250 in middle and 250 in elementary.

Poverty brings with it a high mobility rate. We have kids who move. They move to boarding schools. To Sioux Falls or somewhere their family can try to get work. If things don't work out, they come back. So we have kids going and coming between the tribal school, our school, other schools in South Dakota, and other states. That is one of our challenges.

Again, we would like to see our high school numbers between 240 and 250, which means we have another 20 to 30 kids we need to keep. But in the last six years we've gone from 29 percent Native American of about 180 students to 44 percent Native American of 219 students. So we're getting there.

Public School Insights: Are there any other programs in the district that you'd like to tell me about?

Smit: We're using the PBIS positive behavior model. We've just started that this year, to supplement our Boys Town model. And our principal just started a new middle school program called ZAP—Zeroes Aren't Permitted. That's been a really powerful program. It helps kids who can't do homework. If they’ve got 10, 15 people living in a small house, there may not be a place to do homework. This gives them an alternative.

Our classrooms all have SMART Boards. Again, if we didn't have technology, we'd be in trouble. It's been really beneficial to us in individualizing for students. In talking about what we should do for preschool and kindergarten, we decided computers aren't necessarily what we need. So we bought iPod touches for all the kindergartners, and they're integrating the aps into their learning.

We try to keep administrators ahead of the curve. We bought BlackBerries for them about five years ago. And we use Marzano's iObservation tool to help teachers improve instruction, in many cases on iPads in which we've invested, again trying to keep our administrators ahead of the curve.

And we are a dual-platform school. We don't sell computers, we sell skills. So we have both Apples and PCs in our school.

Public School Insights: Are there any big lessons that you could share with others who are struggling with some of the same challenges you've faced?

Smit: I think the big thing is, so often we give up too soon. It takes five years to embed a practice. So we say, "Oh, that’s not working,” but you’ve gotta hang in there long enough to be sure. If it's absolutely not working, don't waste time. But you have to really give things a chance to work.

And I'm not very patient, but you have to be patient with a staff who's trying to make a transition. That's difficult, because I don't think kids have time to wait. They can't afford a year while a teacher gets something in her head. Here, I think staff has been up for the challenge, but it can be overwhelming. And as administrators we have to keep pushing, encouraging and moving forward. We can't just give up and say, "Good enough is good enough." Good enough will never be good enough.

I worry so much about where we're headed in public education. Everybody went to school somewhere, and they all believe that that's the way public education should look. But times have changed. We don't have farmers in rural South Dakota anymore, or very few of them. Yet we're still operating with the same mentality that we did 20 years ago.

That's a scary part, I think, for public education. The people making the decisions don't always realize that change is necessary if education is going to do a better job.