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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 ...

The Commission on Equity and Excellence had a Congressional mandate to provide advice to Secretary Duncan on the disparities in meaningful educational opportunities and to recommend ways in which federal policies can address such disparities. They just released a report titled “For Each and Every Child,” after a two year work period. The distinguished members of the panel, with diverse professional backgrounds and different political ideologies, focused on the inequality in our nation’s public school system as the primary driver behind two achievement gaps, the internal domestic gap and the international gap. Their conclusions and recommendations won’t surprise education professionals, but the report serves as a well-timed call to action for the struggles facing African American students, particularly males, during Black History Month. The opportunity gap also exists for a significant number of Hispanic and Native American students. ...

There are few things as complicated as funding when it comes to our nation’s public schools. But a basic understanding on the part of policy-makers and voters can be a significant contributor to the vitality of public schools and our democratic society. This week, as much of mainstream media zeros in on the Presidential race and key competitive Congressional races, it’s worth remembering that on November 7th, governance will continue with policy decisions and consequences playing out on the local level, especially for education. As we continue our pre-election examination of school finance policies, we focus on the second half of the Center for American Progress (CAP) report, The Stealth Inequities of School Funding: How State and Local School Finance Systems Perpetuate Inequitable Student Spending. ...

Election Day is just around the corner, and as voters go to the polls to cast their ballots, in many states, they vote on more than just candidates. Most voters will have several ballot referendums to vote ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ on, and the consequences of those decisions influence policy. Take as one example the recent vote on gay marriage in the state of North Carolina. It is no different with ballot referendums on public school funding. This fall, five states have some such type of ballot initiative, the largest number in two decades: Arizona, Missouri, South Dakota, Oregon and California. Whether extra revenue is approved or not will have a tremendous effect on each state’s public schools. In this respect, voter turnout and participation is crucial. ...

As with many developments in public education, when you hear about a “public private partnership”, you would do well to ask a few follow-up questions. For example, you might wonder about the true business interests – given that many entities are profit-driven. If the company has a foundation arm providing grants, what are their metrics pushing for schools or districts to demonstrate? To what extent does the business respect education experts and maintain a respectful distance from policy decisions?  Are these programs operating in traditional public schools and are they successfully expanding? Do these programs support equity? In an era where tax dollars are scarce and public schools are struggling under the challenges of tightening budgets, it is tempting to cite examples of cross community collaboration as a possible solution to school funding issues. However, not all partnerships are the same when you compare quality, mission or implementation, and continued questioning is essential. ...

McDowell County Public Schools have been in the news a lot recently and for good reason. They are part of an exciting partnership that brings together public and private partners to revitalize the rural West Virginia community in which they are located.

McDowell faces an uphill battle, especially where statistics are concerned. Once a vibrant coal mining community with more than 120,000 people, McDowell experienced a mass exodus and decline after the industry collapsed in the early 1960s. Today, the county has around 22,000 residents with a median household income of $22,000. For the past decade, McDowell County has ranked last in the state in education, over 40% of students don’t live with their biological parents and 72% of students live in households without gainful employment. Roads are in a poor state of repair, making transportation difficult, many homes lack running water and medical care is hard to find. Significant problems for schools come with these realities – property taxes generate low revenue to fund schools, teachers are hard to recruit and keep, and resources of all kinds are scarce. ...

Earlier this week the State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA) released its latest report, The Broadband Imperative: Recommendations to Address K-12 Education Infrastructure Needs, at an event featuring presentations by a panel that included two state leaders from Maine and West Virginia along with a district administrator from New Jersey.  Once again, we were reminded of the opportunities that are opened up for students and teachers (and those administrators that lead districts and schools) when robust connections and ubiquitous communications devices are available for teaching and learning.  However, having more years of experience than I like to admit in advocating for the appropriate use of technology to support personalized learning opportunities and teaching effectiveness, I was struck with the realization that this meeting and its recommendations, while important, were not new.   ...

Consider a community in which people cannot own property. Where housing consists of trailers or old manufactured homes packed closely together, with options for food and shopping very limited. Where a large population of feral animals poses a consistent threat. With high crime rates, high alcoholism, high gang activity. Would you want to live – or teach – there?

Alchesay High School in Whiteriver, Arizona (part of the White Mountain Apache Reservation) is located in such a community. Prior to the arrival of Principal Roy Sandoval in the summer of 2010, the school had the lowest math scores in the state, a 47% graduation rate, and a large population of 18-20 year-old students with less than five credits. There were 291 on-campus drug and alcohol incidents in the 2009 school year (SY2009), and “bootleggers” were selling alcohol to students from land adjoining the campus. There was great rancor and mistrust between teachers and administrators. ...

Recently I was looking through old paper files in the Learning First Alliance (LFA) office and happened upon a successful grant application that LFA had received some years ago to gather, record, and disseminate the knowledge, skills, and approaches successful school districts use to ensure their students achieve to their highest abilities.  The project resulted in a publication called Beyond Islands of Excellence that, indeed did chronicle what goes into an effective public school system and profiled districts whose students had benefited from their wise, effective leadership.   I was struck by how much the scope of work described in the successful grant application articulated the concepts and big ideas that LFA organizations and their leaders still work diligently to implement today. ...

I may be able to afford my connection costs, but staying plugged-in is not cheap; a comparison of Comcast and Verizon shows prices between $69.99 and $100.00 a month, before taxes, for varying internet and cable packages.  For low-income families, prioritizing access comes after purchasing food, making loan payments, buying clothes and filling up the car with gas. Yet in the digital age, it’s becoming evident that children without basic technological skills will be at a disadvantage in the workforce and society. ...

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