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Rural School, Global Education: An Interview with 2014 Digital Principal Daisy Dyer Duerr

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When Daisy Dyer Duerr was named principal of rural Arkansas’ St. Paul High School, the school was struggling. It was also, in her words, “disconnected.” Three years later, the school is achieving academically, and it’s largely low-income student population is being exposed to, and empowered through, experiences previously unknown to them thanks to the power of technology.

For her work at St. Paul, Duerr was named one of NASSP’s 2014 Digital Principals, an award that honors those who exhibit bold, creative leadership in their drive to harness the potential of new technologies to further learning goals.

In a recent e-mail interview, she shared her philosophy on digital learning and discussed St. Paul High School’s transition to a technology-infused school, emphasizing the challenge that bandwidth (or more specifically, a lack of bandwidth) presents to her rural community. The school’s story is both inspirational and instructive, offering guidance on how to incorporate and support new technologies in teaching and learning to best prepare students for life in a rapidly changing world.

Public School Insights: Tell me about St. Paul High School.

Daisy Dyer Duerr: St. Paul High School is an extremely rural, isolated school in Northwestern Arkansas. We serve approximately 125 students in grades 7-12; we are actually a preK-12 campus (with approximately 250 students), and I am the principal of the entire campus. The central office for our school district is 30 minutes from our campus.  

Demographically, depending on the year, our socioeconomically disadvantaged rate has ranged from 80-88%. We serve 93% Caucasian, 5% Pacific Islander, and 2% "other" students. Only 10% of our students have internet service in their homes, according to a 2012 survey.

At St. Paul High School, we are a small town school using technology and genuine relationships with students to provide a truly global education.   

Public School Insights: What is your general philosophy on digital learning?

Daisy Dyer Duerr: I see technology as an amazing equalizer of student circumstance. Here at St. Paul, some of our circumstances are isolation and low socioeconomic status. Through the use of technology we have been able to expose our students to experiences and things previously unknown to them, and to empower them through these experiences. Some examples: virtual field trips, collaborative work with schools/classrooms in other states, Google Hang-Outs with authors across the world, concurrent credit college classes for high school students offered through distance learning, and just the power of putting not only information but a creation tool in our students’ hands.

Public School Insights: When you were appointed principal of St. Paul, how was the school using technology? How has that changed since you have been the school leader?

Daisy Dyer Duerr: St. Paul High School was what I would consider a “disconnected” school when I was hired three years ago. Each teacher had a desktop. There were state-required computer labs which were outdated, a few Smart Boards in classrooms which were used mostly as overhead projectors, and a 10 MacBook CTE Cart that had never been used.

Immediately when I arrived I gathered a leadership team and assessed the situation at St. Paul High School; the huge technology issue was a lack of training on the devices that were in place. That was addressed immediately with Smart Board training during the first days of in-service when school began. I also made it my personal mission to write grants and raise the money for St. Paul High School to become a technology infused school. This became a shared vision and goal of our staff that first summer when I was hired. I don’t know that the staff believed it would actually happen at that point, but they were very excited about the possibilities; when you can get a group of educators and community members excited about something, it tends to snowball to the entire campus.

Public School Insights: How did you create buy-in and capacity among St. Paul staff to support the increased use of technology in the school?

Daisy Dyer Duerr: When I was hired at St. Paul High School, we were on year 2 of school improvement and struggling with declining enrollment; it was a bleak situation! My selling point to my teachers and staff from the very beginning was, “It’s not about what you have, and it’s about what you do to be awesome for kids!” We worked together from the beginning to create a shared vision of how we could use technology to enhance classroom instruction and provide learning opportunities for all students. I asked them to work together to effectively use what we had and simply believe that I would find a way to infuse more technology into our school. Our teachers became “sharers” & cheerleaders for each other. They truly wanted to see our students and school succeed in these dire circumstances; they genuinely appreciated that I believed in them.

Public School Insights: I understand that bandwidth is a challenge at St. Paul. Could you tell us why it is so important, and what you’ve done to increase it?

Daisy Dyer Duerr: I love this quote from Dr. Paul Lasley: “High speed internet is as important to today’s young adults as electric lines and paved highways were for their parents and grandparents.”

Bandwidth is the key to technology being that great equalizer I talked about earlier. It’s ALL ABOUT ACCESS! If you have all the devices in the world, but you cannot get online to access anything, what have you done? Our state has helped us with a grant to increase bandwidth, but it is not close to enough to keep us to a high rate of speed at optimum usage. And along with our school devices, we have a thriving BYOD program, which means…we need more BANDWIDTH! I continually look for options to improve this amount and am very frustrated by the limited number I have found. Due to the rural location of our school, we have one provider for our internet service, which, as the law of supply and demand indicates, is not good for us!   

Public School Insights: What other challenges, if any, have you faced as you’ve moved the school towards a new vision of teaching and learning?

Daisy Dyer Duerr: The greatest challenges for our school are: A) Funding – how do you pay for devices and bandwidth? We were able to obtain grants and reallocate monies to increase the number of wireless devices and e-readers on our campus to approximately 200. B) The Paradigm Shift in Teaching/Learning – I like to say, “You cannot just throw technology at a problem and fix it.” It’s a total culture change in the way we approach our classrooms, our teaching, our students’ learning, and our daily school culture. We must be “all-in” in this shift. To give an example of the huge shifts which have occurred, weekly Digital Citizenship instruction and a BYOD program are now huge parts of what we do at St. Paul High School – those two things weren’t even on our radar in 2012.

Public School Insights: One major concern with digital learning is equity. Could you talk about how that plays out at St. Paul, both while students are at school and when they need to use technology at home?

Daisy Dyer Duerr: Equity at school is absolutely not a problem at St. Paul High School. We have enough devices here on campus so all students can be engaged when it is part of the learning. Contrary to what some may think, I am not necessarily a proponent of everything having to be 1:1. I don’t really think there is anything wrong with a 1:3 environment. I believe part of what we are teaching now with the CCSS is creation and problem-solving in real world situations, and that doesn’t often occur in isolation. A 1:3 environment forces that collaboration for students who aren’t yet developed in their computer sharing skills, and it develops social skills as well. However, if necessary, we would definitely have the ability to go 1:1 here on campus.

At home, we have an issue here at St. Paul. Only 10% of our homes reported having internet in 2012. This is mainly due to the lack of reliable service in our rural location. I am currently in talks with multiple providers in the hopes of finding a solution for a community internet “netting” of some sort; however, the rural, mountainous terrain is a real challenge. This issue prevents our school from looking at a true 1:1 environment at this time.  

Public School Insights: Given you were named a 2014 Digital Principal, I know you have an online presence. Which social media sites do you find the most useful professionally – for professional learning, communicating with your community, or any other purpose?

Daisy Dyer Duerr: I am an avid TWITTER user – @daisydyerduerr. I founded an educational Twitter Chat in 2013 called #ArkEdChat, which occurs weekly, Thursday nights at 8CST. We cover a different education topic each time, from Digital Leadership (with Eric Sheninger as our guest) to Empowering Teacher Leadership. This is an amazing hour each week during which a great group of education professionals gets together and shares in professional learning.

Twitter has enabled me to build my Professional/Personal Learning Network and really grow as an educator and administrator. That saying about when “you get me, you get all my amazing friends, too” is really true when it comes to my use of Twitter. I feel I have access to experts in every area of education at the tip of my finger who are willing to share resources, lend expertise, and also give me honest feedback. I have also really begun to love blogging, which I do on my website, daisydyerduerr.com. This is more of a reflective practice for me, and I find it really helps me in my own professional growth.

I am also on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram, but Twitter is definitely my social media of choice.

Public School Insights: What advice do you have for other school leaders who are interested in moving towards a vision of digital learning?

Daisy Dyer Duerr: My advice is this: BE PASSIONATE! In 2011 I was hired at St. Paul High School, a school in terrible academic condition, with declining enrollment and virtually no technology. Our school is now achieving academically and in fact has received several accolades. We ARE a “small town school providing a global education.” This all happened due to the shared passion of a group of people who believe our students deserve an education second to none, regardless of where we are located or our socioeconomic status. We were passionate in our quest to make this a reality, and we used technology and relationships with our students as our vehicles to make this happen.

Public School Insights: Are there any questions I should have asked you, but did not?

Daisy Dyer Duerr: What’s next for St. Paul High School?

I mentioned this earlier, and yes, I understand this is a lofty goal – I hope to work with commercial companies (through grants) to achieve some type of community internet “netting” so someday St. Paul Schools can achieve a true 1:1 K-12 school/home environment, and the community can have reliable internet access even in the most mountainous and isolated rural areas.


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