Connecting Rural Schools to Forests and Communities

My friend and colleague Korah Soll runs an organization called Rural Aspirations. She has spent the last two years developing and launching a new program called the Maine Forest Collaborative (MFC) that aims to connect deeply rural schools to their communities and the forests on which these communities depend. The MFC is interesting for a number of reasons, including its deep focus on place, its inclusion of schools and teachers in program design, its dependence on local funding rather than external funding, and more. In this post, I will focus on its commitment to creating a network of schools, communities, and local stakeholders that will not only connect teachers together, but that will also manage and perhaps own the program.

The MFC grows out of Korah’s work with her colleague Val Peacock over the past six years in the Eastern Maine Skipper’s Program, which is now supported by the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries (MCCF) and is focused on connecting students in Maine’s coastal communities to fishing, the central economic engine for most of those communities. The MFC builds upon what Korah and Val learned from the Skippers program.  I will return to that learning … which was the central focus of a meeting that I attended in late February in Augusta … at the end of this post.  First, I need to say a few things about the MFC.

Structure and Goals of the MFC

Korah’s 16-year career as a Maine teacher was primarily in “alternative education” — which, in rural communities, means working with students (often a large proportion of the school) who are not thinking about going to college.  (I could go on and on about the political and social implications of considering PUBLIC education that is not aimed at college as “alternative,” but I will leave that to you to ponder.)  She began teaching in parts of Maine where smaller communities depend on farming and found that she had students who got up at 3:30 to milk cows, clearly knew what work was and took it seriously, went back to milk cows when school was over, and who considered the middle parts of their days, which were spent in school, to be a waste of time. She recognized that if she did NOT support these students in learning to reason carefully, write well, speak effectively, use scientific knowledge and methods, and in other ways learn to develop and articulate their own knowledge and viewpoint while working collaboratively with others, she would be contributing to the loss of the rural community’s capacity to grow and sustain itself.  These students are the future of their communities.  So, she focused on (1) addressing things that mattered to the community (2) making each child responsible for his or her learning, and (3) setting high expectations. These kids, for the most part, were already competent and conceived of themselves as competent.  Taking charge of their own learning made good sense to them, and they did it.

All of Korah’s current work (Skippers, MFC, and consulting work with individual schools and districts)  focuses on connecting learning to the core economic and cultural concerns of the communities that the schools serve. In the MFC, the question underlying the students’ work is, “How can we use forests to positively impact local communities?”  The MFC “project narrative” says that:

Students will define a local region and invite community contacts and partners to collaboratively explore the history of forest use and ownership in their region, investigate current forest use, and imagine ways local communities have, are and could use forests to impact financial, social/cultural and ecological dimensions of their regions.  Students will collect qualitative and quantitative data to create layered story maps. communicating to others past, present and future perspectives on forest use and its impact on local communities.  In May, students will present to a community audience.

The MFC launched in January of this year.  It is now in use in Buckfield, Bethel (Telstar), Jackman (Forest Hills), Salem (Mt. Abram), Greenville, and Piscataquis high schools.  These are all small schools.  Each is in a community where the people who live there year-around are substantially dependent on the use of forest resources.

Here is a link to the curriculum for this year. You will see that it built around three instructional units:

  1. Building context for understanding forest use in our local communities
  2. Collecting data, and learning from community resources
  3. Analyzing data to share an understanding of how forest use has, is and could positively impact local communities

GIS mapping, using ArcGIS, is fundamental to this work. Students approach the core question spatially.

As an example of the kinds of work going on, the science teacher from Jackman (she teaches all science subjects for all 4 years of high school) told me that she began by having her students look at the distribution of forest resources and the economic uses of those resources statewide, then narrowing it to regional and county levels, and finally asking them to make some decisions about the boundaries that define Jackman’s connection to forest resources. She said that in the course of this narrowing, the students began thinking about Greenville, which also in the MFC program and nearby (In northern Maine, 50 miles is nearby). This led them toward thinking about what it means that Greenville (on Moosehead lake) has a large seasonal flux in population — something that is less of an issue/opportunity in Jackman. This is deep work; these are not simple questions. At the same time, they get to the core of what makes Jackman what it is.

One of the “magic” and difficult outcomes that both the Skippers and MFC programs seek to attain is finding the balance between “local” and “sharable.” It is important for these small schools to feel connected to other schools rather than isolated, and it is important to stretch curricula, resources, and know-how across schools to maintain a manageable ratio of development and implementation costs to learning and economic returns. Having common elements also creates opportunities for teachers to share ideas and learn from each other. At the same time, the work in each school really does need to revolve around the needs of the community that the school serves. It is too early to know how well the MFC is striking that balance; I point to this challenge to underscore the ambitious goals that drive the MFC.

Where To From Here?

The Eastern Maine Skippers Program “just growed.” Starting from one school, it attracted interest from other schools, addressed a genuine regional need, and so expanded. But the different schools connect to the program in different ways, with different levels of commitment, and without a shared understanding of how all the schools work together to sustain the program and support each other. Improving and sustaining the program is complicated because there is no shared understanding of who is responsible for what.
Rural Aspirations is building on their experience with the Skippers program to ensure that, in the MFC, governance structures, commitments, and benefits to participants are defined in advance. Korah and the Rural Aspirations program are unusual in that they do not seek to “own” the programs that they bring to life. Their preference is to get them going and then turn them over to the participating schools and communities so that the programs can become part of what these schools and communities “do” — part of the way that the schools and communities move forward.

The meeting in which I participated in late February brought together a variety of stakeholders — school teachers, principals, and superintendents, forest industry representatives, University of Maine representatives, non-profit partners, and others — to consider different alternatives for the governance and support of the MFC as it grows.  Alternatives ranged from ownership by one organization, where participating schools and other partners would exchange information while the decisions are made centrally, to, at the other extreme, a model where the participating schools and partners would own the program and be responsible for keeping it going. There were a couple of steps between these extremes and a recognition that, in the end, the solution might be a mix of “central” and “distributed” governance as one looks across the work that needs to be done (curriculum development, partner outreach, providing or securing financial support, evaluation, and so on).

This was just the first meeting about ownership and governance. There is much more work to be done. What is exciting here, and a key motivation for this post, is that schools and other organizations in Maine appear to be finally reaching a point where it is possible to conceive of this kind of important work collaboratively rather than as ad hoc, one-school-at-time initiatives or initiatives that last only as long as there is grant funding to support the work.  This is not the ONLY work in Maine that is dealing in a carefully considered way with the governance, scalability, and sustainability of innovative education programs (work at the UMaine RiSE Center comes to mind as another example, the ELLMS network is another), but is notable and important for its focus on students and communities that tend to be underserved by schools and where the schools tend to be underserved by statewide policies and initiatives.  It is also notable for its focus on the use of local commitments to support the program rather than external funding.

I hope to keep following the MFC’s development. This is innovative work. It seeks to empower students, teachers, and communities that are, as they should be, wary of initiatives from the outside that seek to “help” without attending to what it is that makes each community unique.


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