Promising Practices in Rural Schools

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Episode 78 │ Promising Practices in Rural Schools

Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024

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Show Notes

Michael Gonzalez

Innovations in rural schools are paving the way for more successful futures for our youth! Tune in as Michael Gonzalez, executive director of the Rural Schools Innovation Zone shares about the challenges rural schools face and how they’re facing them head on. From expanding career and technical offerings to substantial teacher retention bonuses, Mike shares how pooling resources between districts in rural Texas has been a game changer for their students.


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Kisha: Welcome back to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm Kisha DeSandies Lester.

Helen: And I'm Helen Westmoreland, and we are your co hosts.

Kisha: Yes, we are. Today, we're going to explore the unique challenges and opportunities facing rural schools.

Helen: That's right, Kisha. I'm really looking forward to diving into this topic. Did you know that according to a recent report from the National School Boards Association, 1 in 5 students in the United States attends a rural school? And over 4 million of those students, or about half, attend high poverty schools. We often hear about urban and suburban schools in our national media outlets, but today we are giving some focus time and attention to rural schools.

Kisha: Yes, Helen, it's good. I started out as a journalist in a rural area, and rural schools really need attention too. I'm happy that today we have Michael Gonzalez, Executive Director of the Rural Schools Innovation Zone, or as he calls “the zone” with us today. In his role, Mike is dedicated to eliminating the opportunity gap, creating vast post secondary pathways and building a model for rural education that has been applied in communities across the country.

In Mike's 31 years in the field of education, he has served as a teacher, coach and athletic director before spending 17 years as a principal. So he's well versed in this. Mike is also a dad of three kids. Welcome, Mike, and thanks so much for joining us today.

Mike Gonzalez: Thank you, guys. I'm excited to be here.

Kisha: Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and how you became so passionate about rural education? I know you are born and bred in the community that you live in.

Mike Gonzalez: Yes, ma'am. I'm born and raised in a rural community—pre K through 8 community, population of 612 and probably about 580 of them were related to me. So you can only imagine, you know, one of those situations. So I completely understand the situation that our parents and our students go through.

Very vibrant rural community, you know, pre K through eight school district did very well, still does very well academically. But unfortunately, we never pursued any kind of high school situation within our community. So we were bused 15 minutes away for our high school opportunities going forward, which at the time, the late 80s, because I'm old. It was a situation where a lot of our community members, being a predominantly Hispanic culture, our parents didn't want to put their kids on a bus at that time. So I graduated at the time, the biggest cohort from Driscoll of 18. And only four of us graduated from high school out of those other 18 eighth graders that left.

My first idea was to become a lawyer and make a little bit of money and, and make better of myself and realize that that wasn't the intent of the man upstairs to, to put me on this earth was to help guide and nurture and be a role model to our youth. So I came back home after I graduated from college and started working in rural education and I've been in small districts my entire life.

Helen: That is wonderful. Well, thank you for the work you do. And it sounds like you are walking in your purpose, which is always wonderful to hear.

Kisha: Yes.

Helen: So for our listeners who aren't that familiar with rural education, Mike, I'm wondering if you could just give us the big overview, what are some of the big opportunities and challenges? Because I know there aren't just challenges, there’s great things about rural communities too. Give us a little bit of that perspective.

Mike Gonzalez: Oh, very easy. So in rural education, we're at a fascinating, very interesting crossroads where tradition is meeting the opportunity. The challenge, we're often working with a lot fewer resources and resource being capacity, staff, funding and those things, but what really excites me and the people that I work with the most is incredible untapped potential in our communities, and that's something that I've learned and appreciated in the last five years of the Rural School Innovation Zone.

So here at the zone, I call it the zone, but here at the Rural School Innovation Zone, we’re flipping these challenges and just turning it upside down. And what I mean by that, we're using innovative educational models, our strong community partnerships, and our community pride to transform what rural education was to what it possibly can be. And we're seeing huge benefits of that. So it's about seeing the possibility in the impossible really.

Kisha: So you talked a little bit about this, but schools around the country are facing some teacher shortages. And so in the rural area, what is difficult for schools with staffing and how is the teacher shortage affecting your community, and what schools are doing to address it?

Mike Gonzalez: Yeah Kisha, that the teacher shortage is a hard issue and it's hitting everybody in education, whether it be suburban, urban, rural situations, but we're trying to get creative, we're pooling our resources. We have five independent school districts that have come together that compose the zone. We're building local partnerships to tackle this issue head on, right?

With our local community colleges and our four year institutions. What does it mean when you pool your resources? It means that we're sharing specialized teachers and our facilities. That's a big deal, especially with the lack of resources as far as funding is concerned. We're ensuring that every student across our five districts have access to high quality education, regardless of where they're specifically from.

So our kids, for free, get transported. Approximately the longest travel trip we have I guess is about an hour and 25 minutes. So we're not letting the distance be a barrier at all. So we're also looking at attracting talent from our backyard.

So we're partnering with local colleges and even welcoming professionals from other professions to come and share their expertise. So Texas was really doing it big. We do a lot of things big here in Texas. So

Kisha: Yes.

Mike Gonzalez: When you ask teacher incentive allotment, you know, teacher incentive allotment is a big recruiting tool for the rural school innovation zone. We're bringing in about $1.7 million extra to our teacher's pockets this last coming school year. So it's been a big situation to retain and also to attract teachers to our rural areas. Our master teachers right now are receiving about a $28,000 bonus at the end of the year on top of their salary.

So it's quite incentivizing when you start looking at that kind of situation, and we wouldn't have been able to do that because the rural area school districts don't have the capacity to really delve in deep, right? But pooling our resources together with all five superintendents and the school boards allowed us to be part of that teacher incentive allotment cohort, C and D, to incentivize our teachers for doing a fantastic job. And keeping them within our school district.

Helen: Awesome. It sounds like, Mike, as you mentioned, some pretty innovative approaches, finding the possible in the impossible. And I want to expand on that a little bit, Mike. Could you talk a little bit more about some of the examples and innovations and best practices that you're seeing in the zone with rural schools?

Mike Gonzalez: Within the Rural School Innovation Zone, some of the best practices that I particularly seen includes, tailoring our curriculum to our local industry needs. And the collaboration between our school districts, because unfortunately in rural situations, when you have an algebra teacher, that's usually the entire math department.

So when you start addressing curriculum needs within the math department, you’re pretty much singling yourself out and talking to yourself in a mirror. So pooling our resources is going to allow us to utilize. Yes, it's a true statement, unfortunately. But when you have five rural school districts combining, you know, even if it's just one math teacher per school district—five heads are better than one, when trying to devise curriculum.

So you take that to a CTE situation or industry-based certification situation. Now we're pulling experts from around the area in the industry, which allows our kids to have ample opportunities to gain that extra certification and be more employable as they go forward, because we can be very competitive in hiring a master electrician or a welder from the industry to come teach our kids those things.

We have what we call the Rural School Innovation Zone promise with our grow your own kids, where once they graduate from one of our five school districts and they go receive their certification from a four year institution, and should there be openings within the school districts, they have some priority points that will be given to them to give them a chance to come back and be employed by the Rural School Innovation Zone and the five districts that comprise that.

So again, a lot of those situations that we're really bridging the educational gaps that we're seeing in rural ed because we're pulling our capacity and making it better and easier for our people.

Kisha: Yes. That's amazing. I just remember reporting on these issues. I live in the D. C. area and I, after college, went to live in a rural area for reporting and seeing the stark differences with access to not just education, but for other services as well. What practices are you doing to really help the social-emotional development of students in your schools?

Mike Gonzalez: SEL is a big deal. When you start talking about kids and the situations that they endure, and me personally, I'm beyond using COVID, as an excuse. You know, our kids are just in a situation right now where they need to be, for lack of better terms, here's the coach in me, right?

They need to be a little bit tougher coming out. But I think that the model that we have within the zone, it allows your kids a lot of support. For instance, this morning I was talking to one of our college professors about dual credit students in general. And some of the, some of the problems, issues that are coming up, well, through the zone model and through the dual credit model, and even P TECH model, it's giving those kids an opportunity that should they struggle, we have a support system already built into our system within local districts.

Because let's be honest, if we all went away for school, two hours, one hour, whatever the situation is, you're gonna hit a wall before it's all said and done. And it's usually around Thanksgiving break of your freshman year. Well, what happens when you come home, when you eat mom's cooking? You probably don't wanna go back to school and endure something brand new.

 Something different. I think we're impacting kids on, on the social-emotional learning situation in the zone because we have those mechanisms already built in to support our kids when they're hitting that wall at an early age, their freshman, sophomore year of high school to know that they have an advocate within the zone or their own campus, fighting for them or believing in them and able to achieve success I think goes a long way. I think that's one of the situations within any model, a rural ed model or P TECH or, or an early college high school model that people tend to forget about. Because that system, that mechanism of having someone in your corner is huge, because as soon as you leave the confines of the brick and mortar of your educational institution, it becomes very difficult.

It's very competitive. And we try to embed that in our kids to be competitive in all capacities because life's competitive, but at the same time, they need a hug every once in a while, they need, they need a pat on the back. And I think the mechanisms and the systems that we have in place within the zone and within other models for education have done a very good job in that situation.

And I think we're going to get better at it, right? Because you were seeing the success, the rural school innovation zone has only been around for five years. We really only graduated our first, yes, so we've only really graduated our first cohort with a class of 23.

But we're already seeing the benefits from our kids, you know we have a specialized Health Science Academy, Next Generation Medical Academy. We had seven kids graduate last year with EKG, Phlebotomy, patient care tech, certified medical assistant situation, and they're being employed right away.

And they're part time jobs, but we're getting those kids ready for, the real world. And they're involved in health science programs, LVNRN programs. So we're seeing, we're reaping the rewards and we're seeing the fruits of our labor.

And to me, it's just gonna get bigger and better.

Kisha: Yeah, it's so important that you're doing these things because when you are the first or you're a pioneer, so to speak, you're out there doing these new things. But if you don't have that support, being able to sustain that and get through the tough times, because like you said, life, life is no easy road. And that is awesome that you are looking at it from all those different angles.

Helen: I am also curious, how we make more! Like, so, I think you've given us some pretty good perspective about what you're doing in the rural innovation zone. And I'm curious, the extent to which you're  in these national conversations about rural ed, and what you're doing that you think, if I could have parents advocating for this, this is what I would tell them to advocate for. Like this, we give you the space to sort of talk about some of those bigger things that you'd like to scale and have resources for.

Mike Gonzalez: Unfortunately, Ms. Helen Ms. Kisha, there's not enough time in this podcast for me to go on my soapbox. For listeners and rural communities looking to create these similar opportunities for their kids and, maybe not just their kids, but their grandkids or nephews or nieces, I recommend engaging with their local school boards. That's the first source right there and forming those community partnerships.

Rural communities thrive on, on pride, community pride, and what they instill in, right. And what's the biggest thing you have, everybody talks about Friday night lights in Texas, right. But it's amazing how much you see in a wide variety of situations, whether it be at the county livestock shows, when they're, when they're showing their steers or presenting their barbecue pits, because their grandpa did it in that same situation 30 or 40 years ago.

So you need to, you definitely embark on the community pride and, and start at the local boards, right, and talk to the principals and superintendents in that situation. And I think these steps are crucial in bringing about change because it starts with the community. It starts with the school district to really embark on this journey.

I hate to put the rural school innovation zone on a pedestal, but drawing inspiration from the zone and the zone model can be a starting point. I've had the pleasure and privilege of speaking about the zone nationally and regionally and, and around the state. And, and I tell everybody, to me it's a pack and play situation.

You know, you just gotta have the right leadership in place to make it happen. It's about understanding the local needs, advocating for tailored, educational approaches, right. Because you can't take what we're doing in the zone in deep South Texas and do the exact same model in Montana, but the model itself and the concept itself can be replicated in any situation, you know, and, and that, that would be the big, recommendation, you know, insight I would give from somebody who's been doing it for the last five years and, I'm passionate about it. I have a lot of energy giving back to our communities and being that person advocating for rural innovation for lack of better terms.

Helen: Yeah. Awesome.

Kisha: We have a lot of listeners who are advocates for equality and education. What would you most like PTA leaders and community advocates listening to be doing to support rural education?

Mike Gonzalez: For PTA leaders, community advocates, anybody that really wants to take this forward, my message is pretty clear, you know, focus on creating equal opportunities in rural education for all.

And, sometimes I think that's where it gets missed, right? Because we started talking about athletics and dynamics of early college, high school and those things. But if you take the whole entire balanced student, the kid that's able to do those things, I think it's phenomenal. Initiatives like ours at the Rural School Innovation Zone need your support. They need people like Helen and Kisha and, and these podcasts to help us promote what we're doing. And doing it through collaboration, you know, and giving my email, my phone number out and asking, you know, how can we replicate this, Mike? You know, do you have a team that could come up here?

And we love to share and host people all the time about what we're doing. And we're not saying we're doing it without any blunders. We're the first of its kind in the entire nation to put three independent school districts together.

Helen: That’s huge. That's got to take a lot of political capital too.

Mike Gonzalez: It's been fun, Ms. Helen, I'm not gonna lie to you. And I'll tell you this, I tell this to everybody and my people will probably hate me for saying this, but if I knew I was going to deal with the finances and politics of this job, I never would have taken it. I would have continued being a principal and just touched my campus, right?

But again, taking all that back and because those are my weaknesses and everybody hates to work in their weaknesses. Finances and those things I don't like to deal with, but it's allowed me to grow and I think it's allowed us to a situation where we can take this model, and what we're doing for kids and send it off to anybody else. And I think we have enough capacity right now with our superintendents and our local boards from the zone to help nurture and advise other groups, not only in our state or in our region, but around the nation, should that happen. So again, being a champion for program-specific needs to address what your communities want and what they want to foster I think is vital in making a tangible difference in rural education, a big difference in your community.

And if people can just understand that, I think we'd be in the right direction and going forward. Like I don't know, if Ms. Helen or Ms. Kisha read the stats about rural, about rural ed students, you know? Rural ed is the backbone of education in the nation, and so we got to do something better and more effective in making sure that those kids are taken care of because those kids are going to move to D. C. before it's all said and done, that rural kid might be our next president. So why not do it right? When we have them within our grasp, and national organizations like the PTA, you know, and our local boards and, you know, our national administrative associations, I think it'd be impactful in this situation. And if we would just pool those resources and the capacity of all of our leaders, I think we could change the world one kid at a time.

Helen: Hey!

Kisha: I love it, yes.

Helen: First of all, thank you for everything you're doing. And sometimes I think that there's no better way to show what's possible and really advocate than the story, right? And you are not just Mike Gonzalez, you are Coach Mike, I understand. Do you have any specific students or stories before we close out that you want to leave us with about any of the young people that you've worked with?

Mike Gonzalez: This is, the are stories with every situation, so it's hard for me to highlight one, but the one that gets me is one of my son's best friends. I get my phone number out to everybody, you know, my phone number hasn't changed in 24 years or something like that.

So the young man calls me, I'm in transit. Of course, I'm in my truck cause I normally am. And he calls and says ‘Hey Sir, I'm at this interview you told me about, and there's 65 men here and they're all like older than I am.’ And I said, ‘are you dressed for work? Are you, are you dressed ready to, to, to impress?’ He said, ‘yes, sir. I am. I got my boots on and I got everything’ and I said, ‘okay.’ I said, ‘just hold on.’ So after lunch, he calls me, he says, ‘I got the job.’ I said, ‘well, phenomenal. Fantastic.’ I said, ‘how did that work out?’ I said, ‘65 guys.’ He said, ‘Sir, they asked if anybody had any kind of certifications, safety certifications.’

And I said, ‘okay. So, so what did you do?’ He says, ‘I pulled out my core certification card. So they moved me to a different line.’ I said, ‘phenomenal.’ Now he's working to fulfill his dream of being an electrician. They're paying his tuition and his mileage, and he's still earning 40 hours of pay a week. So it's incentivization there, and I think the zone, I think this model, you know, giving our kids these opportunities. Again. I've been in education for 31 years, so there was always that division of the early college, you know, top 10 percent kid, and then the traditional CTE kid, you know, and the same way between a band kid and an athlete, right?

You know, and nobody ever seemed to cross those lines, but I think the zone is breaking those barriers. My son is a self-employed entrepreneur. He learned a skill in a trade at Ignite Academy with Mr. Chapa and Ms. Colby that has propelled him to pretty much be self sufficient. So when you provide opportunities for kids, kids are going to take advantage of them because the class of ‘21 out of the top 30 kids that graduated from our three campuses, 22 of the 30 top 10 kids were all Academy kids. So, we're breaking down those barriers of the traditional CTE and the early college high school or that, you know, that smart kid, for lack of better terms and we're just, we're just bashing those barriers. And we're taking all those kids and we're just making something really, really good out of them. And it's a team effort. It starts with my superintendents, to my local boards, to my principals, to my Academy teachers, to the parents. I mean, it's a, yeah. You look at the zone employee list and you see Mike Gonzalez. That's it.

But it's more than Mike. It's a huge team effort. via text message or email or a phone calls, whatever we got to go do to make it work, the people I've surrounded myself with make it work. So I'm excited. Like I said, you can tell, and I, I apologize because I can go on forever about stuff like this, but I.

Kisha: Do not apologize. No, this is, this is, it's not just impactful. It's inspiring. Is there anything you would say to those people who might be listening who are in rural communities who want to make the type of change and impact that you have? What would you say to them?

Mike Gonzalez: First and foremost, whenever you log into this podcast, whatever you, my email and phone number has got to be somewhere. So just call me, you know, text me, email me and we'd be more than happy to share resources. But if there's one thing I want your listeners to walk away with from this conversation is that the future rural education is bright with, with a multitude, a ton of possibilities at our fingertips.

So through collaboration and efforts and innovative thinking from our leaders and that one champion, that local champion that wants to stand up for our kids. We can transform these educational landscapes. We can  just change everything that's out there for our kids. And that's impactful.

That's powerful. I want them to recognize the potential in rural education, and go out and support initiatives.  And I just had a conversation with a parent this morning about the lack of people who go out and vote for school board members and bonds. And so go out and support our initiatives, go out and support the kids that are going to be our future.

And let's start turning challenges into opportunities. Let's quit breaking up that, putting up that roadblock or that barrier that we can't do this because, right, let's figure out a way, why can't we go around the wall? Why do we have to go over the wall?

Let's go through the wall, you know, let's just knock it down and go.  We're the future and it's bright, it's just a matter of somebody taking advantage of what's, what we're doing for, for communities, because you can take a million and five examples of rural educational districts that are doing extremely well. Right. And I'm just thankful that you guys found me somehow. Well, thank you again, Mike, for joining us.

Mike Gonzalez: Yes Ma'am. It's been a pleasure. It's been a pleasure.

Helen: You mentioned your name and email, we'll be sure to put that on our show notes page. Is there a website for the Rural Innovation Zone or any other websites you want to be sure to plug?

Mike Gonzalez: Yes, ma'am. It's www.T H E R S I And there's a lot, there's a lot of little things that are there to go forward Like I said, whatever we can do to promote everything we're doing and to help anybody else out, do the same thing. We're there for you guys. There's a lot of technical assistance providers within our state that have helped us and transformed us that I know could put you in the right, in the right frame of mind to get stuff done.

Helen: Awesome.

Kisha: I love it. Thank you.

Mike Gonzalez: Thank you all.

Kisha: Thank you so much, Mike, for joining us today. And thank you for just the work that you do and your tenacity and all that you do, because I know even though it's not just you, it is not an easy task to keep going every day and just helping our youth have a bright future.

And to our audience listening, thank you for joining us and for more resources related to today's episode, check out Thanks for tuning in and join us next time.