The Shared Services Grant program was established as part of the 2016 education package and is intended to provide incentives for districts to work together to find ways to increase learning opportunities. Thirteen proposals, involving 29 districts, totaling approximately $1.3 million, have been funded.
“The Blue Ribbon Task Force discussions about teacher recruitment and retention included a focus on providing students with access to high quality learning opportunities, no matter where they are located in the state. That can be a challenge when teachers are hard to find, particularly for some of our more rural and remote districts," said Secretary of Education Dr. Melody Schopp.
Shared Services Grants were conceived as one approach to addressing some of the challenges faced by rural districts. Districts are using the grants to fill a variety of positions, including the following:
- Spanish teacher
- Art teacher
- Teacher for English learners
- Curriculum specialist
- Instructional coach
- Behavior specialist
- Industrial technology instructor
The Florence and Henry school districts are using a Shared Services Grant to fund a Spanish teaching position. Florence Superintendent Gary Leighton said that both schools had difficulty offering quality foreign language instruction, in part because a Spanish teaching position at either of these two small high schools could not be a full-time position.
Tyra Bach is the Spanish teacher whose position is funded by the grant. “The Shared Services Grant allows students in these two small schools the opportunity to earn an elective, yet important, credit in Spanish,” says Bach. “Before this grant opportunity, the students in these schools were limited as to their methods of learning a foreign language—sometimes without a face-to-face teacher, which was difficult. Now they can fully engage in this important content with a full classroom experience.”
“It has been an overwhelming success, in part because of common need and also because of the ability to work together to make a schedule effective for both schools,” Leighton says. When asked what advice he would offer other districts, he said, “My advice is to find a common need that has been unable to be addressed for a number of years and then work with a partner to solve the issue. Both of our districts learned the benefits that can help improve instruction for students by working together.”
NSU E-learning Center adds teachers and blended courses
The Northern State University Center for Statewide E-learning provides distance education, at no cost, for unserved and underserved school districts in South Dakota. As part of the 2016 education package, funds were allocated for expansion of the E-learning Center. Nine teachers were hired from across the state, and 18 courses were added to the center’s offerings for the 2016-17 school year. Eight of the nine new hires teach from their homes.
Lori Wagner from Webster is among them. Though she has 27 years of experience in a traditional classroom, Wagner says in some ways she felt like a first-year teacher again, getting used to the technology and new way of connecting with students. Despite the technological learning curve, she says, “I was thrilled to discover the relationships with my students are not different. I get to know them very well, including their school activities and family dynamics.”
Not only were new courses added as part of the expansion, but a new format was developed for some classes. E-learning High School Principal Mary Cundy says there was a desire among schools to have more local control over how they access E-learning courses, so a blended model was created.
Blended courses combine live, face-to-face instruction via the Digital Dakota Network and prerecorded online instruction. Live instruction is timed to coincide with a local school’s schedule, rather than the school being tied to the E-learning Center’s schedule.
E-learning Center teachers visit each of their schools twice a year, in the fall and spring. “My site visits are so valuable,” Wagner says. “When I visited the sites this year, what we did varied. In one school, I went for lunch and got to talk to the e-mentor and students. In another, we reviewed for an upcoming test. In every situation, I was given a tour of the school and met with e-mentors and administration.”
E-mentors are typically paraprofessionals who assist students on-site in their local classroom. “That local facilitator is the direct partner with the teacher,” Cundy says. “They’re in regular communication with each other, just as they would be in a traditional school setting. The e-mentor knows what the teacher wants those students to be doing each day.”
In science teacher Beata Ferris’ case, e-mentors are crucial for facilitating lab days. Ferris also started teaching with the E-learning Center as part of the expansion and works from her home in Pierre.
“The idea of being challenged to find new ways to teach science through a distance learning setting and the use of technology was very exciting to me,” Ferris says. “I have loved coming up with innovative ways to change the teaching I did in a face-to-face classroom to make it fit a distance learning model.”
“NSU's course offerings continue to provide a vital piece necessary for us to provide a quality curriculum to our students,” says Armour High School Principal Brad Preheim. “The new blended format has worked very well for us. It is a real concern for small schools to find quality teachers in all areas. Our curriculum, and ultimately, our students, depend on NSU and this program.”
In the 2016-17 school year, 1,477 South Dakota students from 110 schools took classes from the NSU E-learning Center.
“The NSU E-learning Center is a great fit for our school,” says Sully Buttes High School Principal Jeremy Chicoine. “It gives our schedule more flexibility by allowing us to cover some standard graduation requirement courses with the E-learning staff and use some of our in-house staff to offer a few more electives, which is good for both our students and staff.”