Claudette Morton: Enriching Resources at Isolated Rural Schools
Credit: Peter Hoey
The Daring Dozen Q&A
How do you use the Web in your work?
I have never been a Web surfer. I prefer to spend time in the outdoors of beautiful Montana. However, I have learned to appreciate the functions of modern technology. Because my current work involves research and public policy in education, I mostly use Web sites that support that. These include the following:
- The U.S. Department of Education
- The Montana Office of Public Instruction
- The Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory
- The Montana North Central Education Service Region, a pilot regional service program in Montana
- Montana's official state Web site
- The Montana EdTech Professional Development Cadre
Who are your role models?
My first resource and mentor was my dad. Even though he died when I was 11, he treated me like I was a real person. I stayed with him to hear the results of Truman's election, and he talked to me a great deal about what the future could and should be.
Mrs. Johnson, my seventh-grade English teacher, was demanding and even scary! But she taught me how powerful Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" could be when she read it to us on Halloween with the shades pulled.
Mr. Kaiser, my physics teacher, had worked on the Manhattan Project, and he turned his radio on during class so we could hear the beeps from Sputnik as it flew over. He also taught an atomic-physics seminar on spring evenings that about twenty of us attended for no credit.
A professor at the University of Montana in humanities and playwriting made me learn to think!
In my adult life, Fran Loomer, my principal when I taught English, speech, and drama in Glasgow, Montana, taught me that if it was good for kids and for their learning, we should do it!
Finally, there were men and women in my profession who provided insights and so much understanding of the way the system works, but they also inspired me about how the system and life should work.
What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?
Take time to appreciate people and life. Listen, and let people work together. The best ideas come when good people work together to solve problems. The solutions often come from what you may think are the most unlikely sources.
What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?
While I was an at-home mom, the American Association of University Women provided an avenue for me to keep learning and to stand up for what I believe. They said, "Research without action is futile, but action without research is fatal." Finally, there is no greater profession than being an educator. Our children are our future.
What is your mantra in the face of adversity?
I have faced many adversities -- polio, rheumatic fever, the death of my father when I was still a child, and cancer later in life. I believe that education informs me, that the arts and the outdoors inspire me, and that if your cause is right, you can do it. It takes time -- there often are no quick fixes -- but if you persevere, you ultimately see positive changes.
More to Explore:
Scattered across the wide-open spaces of Montana are the kinds of schools and tiny districts many Americans would be surprised to learn still exist in this country. The vast state has just 145,000 K-12 students. Of those, some 30,000 learn in truly rural settings. There are 61 one-room school houses, 116 multigrade independent school districts run by a lone principal or supervising teacher, and another 100 districts with 100 or fewer high school students, each with a superintendent.
"Most educators in Montana are jacks of all trades," says Claudette Morton, executive director of the Montana Small Schools Alliance, which means they're bandaging knees, unclogging toilets, and driving buses when they're not teaching social studies or English lit.
Morton, a former classroom teacher with a doctorate in administration and curriculum, rides herd over this collection of frontier schools as the head of the alliance, which she started with friends in 1996. By providing staff development, research, resources, and technical assistance to Montana's fragile and isolated rural-school system, she has had a huge impact on the health and well-being of small and rural schools across the country. By employing "every medium that she can," says Bob Mooneyham, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, "she is doing as much for rural education as anyone I know."
Most educators at small schools teach multiple grades and subjects, and "a lot of our teachers are somewhat place bound" because of family responsibilities, says Morton of her Montana alliance members. So she serves as a modern-day circuit rider, conducting workshops throughout the state. The biggest problem she encounters, she says, is finding reliable Internet access. Four of Montana's K-8 schools -- like many of our rural schools -- lack wiring; another twenty-three have 56K modems on single phone lines. During online sessions, "no one can call in during an emergency," adds Morton, "and you can't use cell phones in a lot of Montana, because we don't have the coverage."
She catalogued these and other problems as chief researcher for the alliance's July 2006 report "Moving All Montana's Children Across the Digital Divide" (PDF), which she distributed to educators, lawmakers, and technology companies. "I'm not a big techie," she adds, "but without connectivity, we can't do the things we need to do with the kids."
With Morton's help and relentless advocacy, rural and small schools, serving students with the same needs as their urban peers regardless of their financial resources, will get the support and twenty-first-century training they need to succeed.
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