Rural school systems have a unique set of challenges primarily involving scale and funding that often fail to meet their needs, especially in sparsely populated states like Maine. In general, there are fewer students in each school; fewer dollars going to teachers (and more going to fixed, administrative, and overhead expenses); fewer teachers who are also needed to cover multiple subjects (less specialization); less choice in curriculum along with less choice in schools; potentially a wide range of knowledge and skills of students within the same classroom; and less exposure to opportunities outside of school. Rural schools also see the same or higher percentages of poverty, substance use/abuse, and trauma-related challenges that exist in urban areas, but have far fewer resources to address them.
As we think about innovation in rural education that could result in systemic change, our goal is simple—to provide opportunities to ensure all students develop the knowledge, skills, and aspirations to reach their full potential. Snow Pond is concentrating on two vital areas where we believe policy and procedural changes will have the greatest impact on student results.
First, a more balanced, impactful, and inventive curriculum can be made available for each student within a nurturing, supportive culture. Summer programming provided here for the last 84 years offers consistent and valuable insights into proven pathways for innovative solutions. Students who come from all parts of the US reflect a balance of both economic and cultural diversity. These students live and participate in an intergenerational community (for 3 -6 weeks) that offers a balanced and supportive program of arts, recreation, and social activities.
Snow Pond often finds in this summer program that students from rural communities have had very different learning experiences than their peers from other more urban/suburban areas. However, in a short time, we often see transformational results. Parents consistently comment on the astounding change they see in their children musically, socially, and especially aspirationally. Talent is not the differential factor in these students; it is the lack of exposure to opportunity. The challenge lies in how to take the triumphs and culture of the summer program, plus the successes of our expanded year-round programs, and over time apply them to rural public school and community settings more broadly and consistently.
At Snow Pond, we believe transformational results can be consistently achieved through a combination of the four foundational components of our educational programming:
As an example, many rural areas now have a disproportional share of seniors, many of which are anxious to interact with students and share their “stories”. They are also interested in learning about new technologies from the students, learning to play an instrument, and more. This creates a very powerful learning experience for students who witness this lifelong interest in learning. As more community members encounter Snow Pond, the more this culture and experience radiates throughout the region. When we ask students to describe Snow Pond, the most common answer is “magical.”
Secondly, as is the case with all kinds of innovation, sustainability and leadership is paramount. Without question, additional resources are needed in rural regions and most importantly these resources need to be equitably allocated to each student. Additional resources include federal and state school and student funding, facility grants and loans, and operational grants. Also, public education systems need to provide more flexibility and openness: to leverage regional assets and programming that have had long-term sustainable success; to adapt to changing conditions and new technologies; and to find new methods and approaches to enhance every student's individual potential.
There also needs to be a better understanding that quality arts and education (including workforce education) are drivers of rural prosperity. Making this happen will require coordination and explicit support from State and Regional Economic and Community Development agencies, the Dept of Education, and the politicians that fund them. Snow Pond is at the forefront in providing leadership on building awareness of the major issues and opportunities in rural education and importantly driving sustainable results and systemic change over time.