“We’re not asking them to come and save rural education, we’re asking them to let us save it ourselves,” says Miami High School Principal Glen Lineberry. “Which means we need some help, affirmative help, and sometimes we just need them to get out of the way.”
In lieu of action from the state to address school funding disparities and a crisis-level teacher shortage—with an impending worsening due to a bubble of retirements on the horizon—the Miami Unified School District has marshaled resources ranging from the state capitol to the farthest reaches of Gila County to create a technology-based blueprint to expand educational opportunities where few might otherwise exist.
To that end, the district, with Lineberry acting as project director, is leading a movement to establish a virtual classroom network, with the help of a $380,000 grant from the Helios Education Foundation. The Arizona Student Opportunity Collaborative (AzSOC) will embark on a pilot program this school year to bring qualified instructors into underserved classrooms throughout the state.
Using commercially available face-time services such as Zoom or Skype, the program will offer students a handful of courses via hybrid classrooms, where they can interact with highly qualified teachers both online and live in the classroom.
“I have a teacher with a master’s degree in English who teaches college English 101 and 102 for us,” Lineberry explains. “The rest of the time she teaches other courses and she’s a great teacher, but I’m not fully leveraging that upper-level instructional capacity.”
That teacher is Rhiannon Oldfield. She moved to the area from Battle Creek, Michigan 12 years ago to teach at MHS, responding to a job offer on the Arizona Department of Education website.
“Glen had me participate in a meet up of the minds at ASU,” Oldfield says. “The idea is to take what we are already doing and bring in an additional layer of learning.”
Oldfield has experience with online learning after earning two master’s degrees online, one from NAU in English, the other from ASU in educational leadership.
“The current trend in education is leaning toward digital,” she says. “I feel this is the way to go. More students need to get experience in this type of learning/work environment.”
The concept has been rolling around in Lineberry’s mind for some time, but the project picked up steam near the end of 2018, when the ASU group that provides online classroom learning for the district wanted ideas to get more schools involved.
“It really started to take form in October and November and everybody just sort of started participating,” he says. “Up until now there hasn’t really been anyone in charge and no formal sponsor, which made everyone comfortable with helping.”
The project took off in January, when a representative from the Helios Education Foundation—a former student loan and finance company—attended a January meeting Lineberry arranged with the full support of the Arizona Department of Education and Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman.
Helios Foundation President and CEO Paul Luna is a class of 1982 Miami alum, so the funding had a local connection. “Helios has stepped up and is funding the entire cost of this pilot year: Teacher stipends, technology costs, staffing costs, module development, curriculum development, all that sort of thing,” Lineberry says.
Lineberry said AzSOC will initially offer 10-12 classes to reach about 100-300 students the first year.
“The idea is to work out the bugs and work with a fairly small number of schools whose teachers and principals will know that this is a work in progress,” he says. “We want to help some kids this year and learn our way so that we’re prepared in August 2020 for a rollout to every school in the state.”
The rural education crisis is two-fold: Arizona consistently ranks at the bottom in the nation for education spending and teacher pay. Additionally, depopulation of rural communities has reduced the amount of funding schools receive per student, which hits schools in those communities particularly hard.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Arizona ranks 48th in the nation in teachers’ salaries, behind only South Dakota and Oklahoma. Census Bureau information shows that the state spent $8,296 per students in fiscal year 2018, but the range of spending varied widely from $6,494 to $19,740 per student, with rural schools taking the brunt of the punishment.
Low wages and lack of services in rural districts have led teachers to move to urban areas or abandon teaching altogether, although urban schools are also feeling the effects of a teacher shortage that has reached crisis levels.
“Rural America is hollowing out,” Lineberry explains. “This is not just Globe-Miami, this is not just rural Arizona: It’s all across the country. You have the same problems in the Ozarks and in Appalachia, but also in better off parts of the country.”
According to MUSD Superintendent Sherry Dorathy, despite efforts such as “Grow Your Own” programs to cull teachers from ancillary staff, the shortage will only deepen.
“With families moving out of the area, we lose students, which in turn reduces our budget,” she says. “Less money means fewer teachers and other staff to do the work still required to run a school district.”
Another strategy is to recruit “trailing spouses,” the husbands and wives of teachers who might have advanced degrees or other teaching qualifications.
Superintendent Hoffman is happy to have input on dealing with the crisis coming from the schools most affected by it.
“Even in Phoenix the teacher shortage is at crisis level,” she says. “Anyone who’s heard this idea loves it, but it’s not going to solve everything. This definitely is [an idea] I’m really excited about because they are getting to work right away and there’s such a desperate need.”
Lineberry knows it will be a long hill to climb, but thinks it could eventually be an important piece to a very complicated puzzle.
“If we can pull this off—and there is an immense amount of work to do—every student in the state would have access to every course needed to complete almost any CTE program, to earn college credits, to be absolutely prepared for whatever stage of post-graduation work they want to pursue,” Lineberry concludes. “Simultaneously, by better leveraging the assets that are scattered around the schools we could mitigate a big chunk of this teacher shortage.”
Journalist, writer and editor who has worked for community newspapers for more than 15 years. After four years at Davis-Monthan AFB and a few years living in Tucson, moved to California to find his fortune. He is happy to be back in Arizona, in the mountains he loves.