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How the College of Education is strengthening Idaho’s rural schools

Prairie's school gymnasium with an old west mural with mountains and a person on a horse
Prairie’s school has plenty of Old West charm: a small library with hundreds of books and a gym that doubles as a lunch room and community center. The classroom is up-to-date and wired with modern technology like any other classroom in the state

School districts in rural Idaho face unique challenges and as a result, find it difficult to retain experienced teachers for a range of reasons, including remote locations and scarce housing.

Boise State’s College of Education is on a mission to help rural districts contend with these struggles and ensure that young Idahoans get a quality education, whether they’re in the state’s largest school district – West Ada with more than 39,000 students – or one of its smallest, Prairie, with five.

An Idaho learning tour

Dean James Satterfield arrived at Boise State in July 2022. One of his first outings was a tour of rural school districts in Southern Idaho.

“Meeting rural school superintendents has allowed me to clearly understand what their needs are so the College of Education can reimagine and create programs that prepare our students,” Satterfield said. “We want each of our graduates to become education professionals and leaders ready to contribute to the Idaho workforce.”

Video What’s it Like in Idaho’s Smallest School District?

Stephanie Lewis, Head Teacher, Prairie School explains what it’s like working in Idaho’s smallest school district. Closed captions are available and a text transcript is provided in the Video Transcript section on this page.

New posts, new partnerships

As a step towards Satterfield’s goals, the college hired Bethany Gochnour (MA, curriculum and instruction, 2018) for the new position of rural clinical instructor. Gochnour has been a rural educator for close to a decade and will be based in Minidoka, Idaho, a small town in South Central Idaho, to provide on-site coaching and professional development for new teachers across the region.

“Our hope is to build collaborative partnerships where Boise State and rural districts work alongside each other in a hands-on setting,” Gochnour said.

Another partnership, with the Micron Foundation, is placing more qualified teachers in rural Idaho classrooms.

The Micron Aspiring Rural Teaching Fellowship provides student teachers with a $5,000 stipend for their student teaching semester in exchange for a commitment to spend their first year of teaching in a rural school. Mentoring continues through that first year in the classroom.

In spring 2023, grant funds placed teachers in the towns of Gooding and Melba. It will fund three additional placements in the fall.

One alum’s story: Teacher Stephanie Lewis took the lessons she learned at Boise State to her one-room school in Idaho’s smallest school district

Nestled between evergreen trees in Prairie, Idaho, across from a sweeping meadow with the Trinity Mountains rising behind it, sits a bright red schoolhouse. Stephanie Lewis (BA, elementary education, 2015) became the district’s only teacher in 2020. She teaches five students in kindergarten through 8th grade, including her daughter Lily, a seventh-grader.

“Before coming to Prairie, I spent my entire life in Boise and the surrounding areas,” Lewis said. “I was drawn to the one-room schoolhouse because of the challenge and the opportunity to stretch my creative teaching muscles.”

Her education at Boise State was thorough, she said, enhanced by
instructors who were passionate about education. “Their support continued long after I graduated and helped me continue to grow as an educator.”

In Prairie, she has the freedom to incorporate service- and project-based learning into her classroom and to develop lessons that span multiple grade levels.

“I became a teacher because I love the spark that happens when things click for kids, when they start to decode words, or when they are inspired to write a story, or when a math concept becomes clear,” Lewis said.

View of mountain side road to Prairie School
Stunning mountain vistas are part of everyday life in Prairie, Idaho, population 116. The two-hour trip from Boise takes drivers on a narrow, unpaved road through a canyon that can become impassable in bad weather. The school district provides housing for Lewis and her family, and they have come to love the community so much that they are building a new home in the district.

The one-room environment offers unique opportunities.

“The kids learn together and the older kids work with and help the younger kids,” Lewis said. “My favorite moment was when a struggling reader was starting to really grow. One of the seventh graders came up to me and said, ‘Mrs. Lewis, did you hear him read to me? He’s getting so good!’ The kids share in my teacher-joy and that’s something so special.”
Lewis is an invaluable asset to the community, District Clerk Victoria Davis said.
“If we weren’t able to secure a teacher for our district, families would either be forced to homeschool, send their students to boarding school or travel multiple hours a day for them to attend the nearest school.”

“I’m not just the teacher. I’m the receptionist, the attendance secretary and the person who finds and recruits speech pathologists. I’m the PE teacher, the principal, the counselor, the record keeper, the health teacher, the technical support, the computer lab teacher, the librarian, the music director and the person who makes sure we don’t run out of paper towels.” Stephanie Lewis

Idaho tradition

The Ireland family represents four generations of ranching in Prairie. Ryder Ireland, age 8, is a third-grader in Lewis’ class.

“We run around 600 head of mother cows and farm about 800 acres of hay ground,” Lori Ireland, Ryder’s mother, said. “If we are not on horseback, we are in tractors or building fences. When Ryder is not in school, he is right along with us learning the trade of being a rancher.”

Having a school with a talented teacher makes life “so much easier on us, trying to run a family business and raise a family at the same time,” Ireland said.

“Mrs. Lewis personalizes each kid’s learning to their individual needs. The knowledge Mrs. Lewis has and the willingness to learn more has been so great for my son.”

By Carrie Quinney

Video Transcript

(light music) (birdsong)

[Stephanie Lewis, Head Teacher, Prairie School]: Well, I started my teaching career in Meridian, so I didn’t begin in a one room schoolhouse. But the idea of a one room schoolhouse was just so intriguing, and it’s something I wanted to try. It sounded like a new challenge, and my husband and I were ready to try moving to rural Idaho and this position became available and I thought, why not? Why not give it a try?

And I’m glad I did. In this environment, I can do a lot of project based learning and service based learning, and I have the kids working together cooperatively across grade levels. And so, for example, when we do literacy, the kids spend a lot of time reading to each other, and that’s been really neat. The older kids take a lot of ownership in the younger kids’ development, and so kind of the same thing is what drew me to teaching, the older kids will say, ‘Did you hear how well he read that?’ ‘That was cool!’

The single greatest challenge is all of the different hats that I have to wear. I mean, sure, there’s the challenge of I have multiple kids in multiple grade levels and most of my grade levels I only have one student. So I have to be really creative with the cooperative learning that I like to do with students.

But beyond the teaching part, it’s really just that when the Smartboard stops working, I’m the tech support. There’s no help desk ticket to put in, or when the lights burn out or, when we lose power in the building, all of those different things that in a larger environment you have a team of people that work to help you with, that just falls to me. And so sometimes that can be my biggest challenge.

So Prairie has 100 registered voters. Our school is set up as a standalone district. We’re the smallest district in Idaho and we have just this one K-8 school in our one room schoolhouse. And we are managed by a board of three volunteers who are so incredibly committed to making sure that the kids of this community get the best education possible.

There’s a lot of things about my time at Boise State that laid the foundation to help me be successful here. First, it comes with instruction and all of the different instructional strategies that we learned, which I have to employ teaching kindergartners through eighth grade all together in a one room environment. And so I can be really flexible and I feel like I have a lot of tools in my toolkit that I can pull from to teach.

But I also do more than just teach. As the the only teaacher and the head teacher, I’m responsible with doing monthly presentations to the school board to update them on the state of the school, and I handle a lot of administrative tasks like a principal would.

So because my time at Boise State, we spent a lot of time learning about the Danielson Famework, and professional standards and best practices in education, special education, GT education. I feel really competent handling all the different aspects of this environment even though I’m in this all by myself. I mean, I think it’s critical that kids everywhere have the best access to education and opportunity, particularly in the rural environment.

We don’t have quite as many people working on a problem, and it’s important that being spread a little more thin or maybe not having quite as many resources don’t affect the education of these kids. They have every right to go on and do whatever amazing things they decide to do with their life. And I think it’s really important that we have the best teachers possible everywhere we go.

And I really value my education at Boise State and how that helped me do that for these kids.

(light music) (birdsong)