Achieving Success in Rural Schools

A Conversation with Elisabeth Luevanos, Superintendent, Milano (Texas) ISD

Urban and suburban school districts garner most of America’s attention. Still, nearly 10 million students are enrolled in the nation’s rural schools. Their districts are building partnerships with colleges, developing curricula that address their students’ needs, and, importantly, opening students up to unforeseen possibilities.

Elisabeth Avila Luevanos is in her second year as superintendent of the Milano Independent School District in Central Texas. Her rural school system, which the Texas Education Agency recently rated as an A district, serves approximately 400 students from pre-kindergarten through high school. Luevanos, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from Baylor University, Texas A&M University, and Houston Baptist University, previously served schools in suburban and urban communities. The 2022 Presidential Leadership Scholar discusses the challenges her district faces, along with how they are meeting those tests, in this conversation with Eva Chiang, the Bush Institute’s Managing Director of Leadership and Programming; Peyton Webb, The Catalyst’s editorial assistant; and William McKenzie, Editor of The Catalyst. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

What kind of schools do rural students need to prepare them for adult lives filled with opportunity and purpose?

One, there needs to be a focus on student needs and resources. And rural schools need staff that look at their students’ potential as opposed to the lack of resources and shortage of highly qualified individuals to educate them.

There is generational poverty in rural communities, which means many individuals come from families in which no one graduated from high school or pursued a post-secondary education. Pursuing some form of college or a certification isn’t necessarily a high need or focus because the mindset is on working on local farms and ranches with the knowledge students already possess. Getting rural students to see their potential and gifts is a priority for districts like ours.

Poverty here is more dire, too, than in an urban or suburban district. Many students in rural communities feel a sense of destitution and hopelessness, that they don’t need education to succeed in life.

They need individuals who will look at their special skill set and knowledge, and then create a system that allows each student to succeed academically. That way, they can break the generational poverty cycle and change the trajectory of their family’s earning potential.

To make this happen, schools need academic programs that ensure students are ready for a job and career when they leave our school doors. They don’t need to graduate with a piece of paper that means nothing or that means they must get another trade or skill set beyond high school. Schools need to identify our kids’ great knowledge and have a mindset that all students can succeed.

Many of our students have different learning styles. As in any school district, we need to identify those styles and provide differentiated instruction. That will help us meet each student’s needs.

John B. Connally Technology Center at the Texas State Technical College Waco, Texas campus

I had a student who graduated second-to-last in his class and had an extremely low GPA. He thought he was incapable of any post-secondary academic endeavor because of his grades and perceived lack of intelligence. But he had this very mechanical mind, could process things verbally, and could learn visually. He could break apart an engine, weld anything, and create anything he put his hands on. I always told him, “You’re much smarter than me. I do not have that technical mindset to tear apart an engine and put it back together.”

We talked often about his potential and finding a program for him. We were able to get him enrolled in the Texas State Technical College’s diesel mechanic certification program. He persevered, has a 4.0 GPA, and will graduate next semester. He’s going to make more money than he ever dreamed about. With his strong work ethic, he will exemplify diligence and perseverance within his community.

I have many more stories of students who need similar guidance and partnerships with school officials. Students need individuals who believe impossible things for them and provide them with resources and programs so they are successful. I always tell students, “I want you to be more successful than me.”

In short, rural districts need educators who can inspire, motivate, and believe the impossible for each student. Otherwise, we will never help our students find their true meaning or purpose and make a difference in their lives.

How do you attract and develop great teachers and principals in your rural setting?

It starts with having an innovative leader who creates a value system that embraces looking for the potential in a person.

I have hired highly qualified people who are gems. They love the content they’re teaching, but they also want to be in rural communities. They see the purpose in developing positive relationships with students and all stakeholders.

But it takes a leader who is a risk taker, someone who looks at the soft skills within the individual, not necessarily their credentials. I have hired individuals that other school districts may not have noticed because they hadn’t taught for 10 or 15 years. But they have the drive, purpose, and devotion to believe in our small schools and students.

When I bring in any potential candidate, we first have a meal together. Let’s get to know each other so you can know my vision, I can know your vision, and let’s see if this will be a good fit.

I want them to know that I will serve from behind, helping get them with what they need, investing in them, and guiding them. I’m not here to dispose of them. I’m not here to just be about numbers. I am here for the impact that they will make on our students now and 20 years down the road.

We’re looking to transform students’ lives, not just get a grade, graduate them, and move on.

How do you get access to quality curriculum, particularly in reading?

We invest in identifying and differentiating the resources that teachers need. I don’t believe in one curriculum that fits all. Just like one learning style doesn’t fit all students’ needs.

In small rural districts, you may have one math teacher at the junior high who teaches sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. That’s true in our case, so we are trying to align instruction in those grades and earlier ones. How can elementary teachers build math skills that will help at the junior high level? How can junior high teachers expand those skills, so students are ready for high school math? And how can our high schools get them ready for a post-secondary education?

This process starts with focusing on the teacher’s needs, strengths, and areas of growth. The next step is finding curriculum and instructional resources that fit their needs. Rural districts don’t have one holistic curriculum for K-12. We need everyone working together and giving power to teachers who are experts in their subjects.

The norm is that people go to conferences and come back with a shiny penny that will fix all of our problems. But at the end of the day, it gets down to the fundamentals. As long as we focus on the fundamentals, our students will succeed. That’s my mindset about creating support for teachers.

In regard to reading, schools must lay a strong foundation in pre-K, kindergarten, first, and second grades. If we’re not focusing on early literacy and early reading initiatives, students will not have the foundational knowledge to progress to secondary-level campuses.

From 2019 to 2021, we went from a B-rated school district to an A-rated district, and we had gains across the board. Our elementary school went from scoring in the 70s on the state reading exam to scoring 96% in approaching grade level or above on the exam.

This success is about focusing on reading and believing our kids can succeed in reading. We concentrate on how we can get our kids reading — and excited about reading. That approach impacts our students.

Graduation at Milano High School

There’s a national debate over how to teach reading effectively. Some emphasize the science of reading, which includes teaching phonics, while others emphasize balanced literacy or whole language instruction. Where do you all fall in this debate?

We’re all going to the reading academies the state has established. But I don’t believe in one program that fits all. It comes down to the basics. Our teachers are focusing more on the basic science of reading and creating and identifying those needs for every single student. They come in reading below grade level, but we are providing support within those classes to get our kids’ reading at grade level and above.

To what extent is access to broadband a challenge for your district?

We have visionaries in our school district who did not know they were visionaries. Going into the COVID pandemic, every student had a one-to-one iPad. I call our IT Director “Megamind” because over the last 10 years he has been putting in the software and fiber optics we need. When COVID hit, every student had a hotspot and went home with two or three of them if they needed it. They already had their iPad. If they needed to, they also could come onto the property and access the internet.

Our county judge, Steve Young, also is a pioneer and visionary in securing grants so every person in the county has access to the internet. Because of all this preliminary work, we didn’t struggle with supply and resources for our students. We just literally turned the light switch on.

Now we’re using an online platform and doing asynchronous learning. We are not deficient in that because of the people who are committed to this school district and community. You need to invest in the people who anticipate and predict so that districts can provide the resources students need.

To end on a positive note, what signs of progress do you see in your district, especially coming out of the pandemic?

I’m going to end with one more story. One of my students has a bullfighting scholarship at Hill College, a two-year school where he is majoring in embryology. He wants to become an embryologist and develop his own cattle line. But he also loves competing in the rodeo.

He never thought he could get out of this environment. But when I spoke to him recently, I asked if he was going to apply to Texas Tech or another four-year institution after finishing Hill College. I told him he needed to go onto a four-year college.

He said he had been offered an opportunity to work on a ranch in the New York area for a year. He wanted to do that, and possibly get his real estate license. I said, “Well, apply, defer, and then you can do that for a year, and let’s see how successful you are. When you graduated, you didn’t even think you were going to fit into Hill College. And now you’re talking about going to New York.”

He acknowledged that going to Hill College opened him up to a bigger world than his home community and that the world he discovered has many possibilities. He’s become more of a risk taker and is trying new opportunities that he never thought possible. He told me he would go back to Milam County because that’s where he is from. But now, he wants to pursue these opportunities.

That spoke volumes about seeing the potential in every student. We’re pushing our students and saying, “You can do this and we will be here to support you.”

There is a gap in support between when our students finish high school and then start the next phase of their lives. They still need our backing in almost a K-14 support system. We are building one organically in our district. It will continue to provide an umbrella of support for each student as they move forward.

As the leader of this district, my impact will come in continuing to think creatively about helping our students succeed in their chosen paths. We want them to know about our commitment and support for them.

There are many students like the one I just mentioned. It’s about seeing their potential, believing in them, providing them the resources, and then stepping back and seeing them shine.

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