Premont Independent School District, in Premont, Texas, is one of five Rural Tech Project finalist teams rethinking high-impact technology education. Alongside the Brooks County and Freer Independent School Districts, Premont is collaborating with the Rural Schools Innovation Zone (RSIZ). The RSIZ offers academy pathways aligned to regional workforce demand with dual-credit and certification opportunities. For the U.S. Department of Education’s Rural Tech Project, the RSIZ developed the Leaders in Future Technology (LIFT) capstone program, serving students in the Grow Your Own Educator and STEM Discovery Zone academies.
LIFT students work in teams to create technology-enabled solutions that can solve real challenges in their community. Students build prototypes, deliver pitch presentations, earn competency-based badges, and engage with industry experts. The students’ creativity and awareness of local needs is highly evident in their projects — which include an online portal for identifying grant opportunities, a drone response system for wildfires, and a portable X-ray system for student athletics.
Students have shown strong interest in pursuing technology-related postsecondary and workforce opportunities; 90% of LIFT students have stated they want to pursue careers aligned to their academies. We spoke with Michael Gonzalez (Executive Director of the RSIZ) and Shane Thomas (co-founder and Chief Program Officer of CareerCraft, a RSIZ partner) to understand further the impact of their program. They shared advice for other schools and their takeaways as they have grown their program over the past two academic years.
Tell us more about the impact of your program — what outcomes are you most proud of?
Michael: The Rural Tech Project allowed us to break out of our shell and utilize resources that we didn’t think we had. Our kids have been exposed to a wide variety of people and resources that were made available through the Rural Tech Project and CareerCraft. Our technological advancements as far as the badges and certifications that students received are something that we never would’ve thought of. I’m excited about the big gains that we’ve had giving our kids opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t have had — a chance to travel, a chance to present.
And we’ve utilized the Rural Tech Project to catapult our kids into different areas. We were the highlight panel at the College & Career Readiness School Models Leadership Summit in Houston. We utilized that platform to get our kids more exposed, and expose the entire Rural Schools Innovation Zone.
Shane: Some of the things that had the biggest impact for students were the opportunity for them to think about what issues are faced in their communities and then come up with ideas to solve real problems. And I can think of two really neat examples that I would’ve never thought of, but these students did.
The first year of our pilot, we had a team of students who realized that they live in small towns with small town governments, and those small towns don’t typically have grant writers on staff. They came up with an idea to have an online portal to help small towns access grant writing expertise. And about two months ago, a nonprofit in Texas launched almost exactly what those kids were trying to do. One of this year’s teams had an idea to use drones to help identify where wildfires are to contain them before they spread out of control. So they were thinking about real problems and how technology can solve them. And I think that really built their confidence.
What advice would you have for other schools looking to start a new technology education program?
Michael: Definitely do the research. We started with some ideas, some concepts, two years ago. We did what we call the impact alliance, which is decision-makers or stakeholders within our region. And then we broke into subcommittees for each of our academies. That really brought our business owners and industry partners in to have a direct pipeline to our academy directors — to make sure that we are fulfilling the obligations necessary for our kids to be employable, and our kids to be ready when they leave our academy.
So understand the culture, understand the community, and understand the regional workforce demand. You need technical assistance providers that understand those concepts. Understanding your area and your region is very important, especially for technology. Look at our Grow Your Own idea of having a portable X-ray device — if you look at our away games, the nearest hospital is two hours away from one of the fields. So to come up with a technology advancement of having a portable X-ray device for a rural community is a big deal. That’s not necessary in Austin, in Dallas, in Houston. But if you’re talking about rural America and the Rural Tech Project, that’s a device that can come in handy.
So understand the complexities of who you are working with in your area. Our kids don’t move away, and we’ve learned that through lots of research and demographic studies. Our kids might migrate away for school, but they’re coming back to raise families in our area. It’s important that we’re producing the kind of product that our communities can be proud of.
Shane: I absolutely agree with finding out what the local business needs are — and making sure they have input on the new program that a school is thinking about developing. I’d also tell a school that’s thinking about trying to create a new tech program that it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to start something. That’s one thing I like about the LIFT program; we think it is pretty scalable and not a huge cost. And if you ask the community to get involved, they will likely say yes, and there will be support to help get it off the ground. So be willing to try new things and see where it takes you, because it will usually pay off.
So understand the culture, understand the community, and understand the regional workforce demand. You need technical assistance providers that understand those concepts.Michael Gonzalez
What surprised you the most? What do you know now that you didn’t know at the beginning of this project?
Michael: The first easy answer would be about the kids. I’m a firm believer that when you set the level of expectations for youngsters, they tend to rise to that level of expectation. And I want to be very honest that if it wasn’t for our community engagement manager and her taking the bull by the horns, I don’t know where we would’ve been. Heather Thomas, [former Premont Community Engagement Manager], really owned this project, and we are where we are because of her. She raised the bar for our kids.
Shane: Thinking back on things that surprised me — we tried to utilize distance learning to the extent we thought it was feasible and practical for this pilot project. And we had some successes with distance learning, but I do think the in-person elements had the biggest impact on the students. Taking students out of rural Texas and bringing them to a metropolitan part of Texas to experience that and meet technology business leaders. I feel like that was a catalyst for the year and really got the students thinking about how they can envision themselves as technology leaders in the future.
Our delivery methods for some of the technology instruction changed from pilot year one to pilot year two. So coaching future districts that are thinking about this — it’s OK to pivot. If your plan doesn’t work exactly the way you think it’s going to work, it’s OK to change it and adapt. I think we had better success in year two because we were willing to pivot.
Michael: Totally concur with Shane — we went through some obstacles. Nobody truly understands the Rural Schools Innovation Zone until you’ve lived it and actually been exposed to it. Unless you’ve sat on the lawn at Premont High School and watched the suburban vans and buses, every 30 minutes on the hour, pick up a batch of kids and take them to a specialized academy to enhance their skills, you wouldn’t know what’s going on. You wouldn’t understand what it’s like to wake up and be on a bus at 6:30 in the morning to go get an opportunity to earn some certification to make your life better. We’ve crossed those bridges, and it had to be done collaboratively.
It’s OK to pivot. If your plan doesn’t work exactly the way you think it’s going to work, it’s OK to change it and adapt. I think we had better success in year two because we were willing to pivot.Shane Thomas
Looking ahead: The grand-prize winner announcement and new resources
The Premont finalist team currently awaits the announcement of the Rural Tech Project grand-prize winner. Early this fall, the U.S. Department of Education will announce the winner, which will receive an additional $100,000. The challenge is also working with each finalist team to compile and publish lessons learned as a resource for other communities. The teams have all demonstrated that rural communities are powerful centers for educational innovation; their program models can be adapted by other schools across the country to create technology education programs that increase access to careers across industries.