Roberto German 0:21
Welcome to our classroom Welcome, welcome, everybody to another episode. Glad you could join us this day. Welcome. In this space we talk about education which is inclusive of but not limited to what happens in schools. Education is taking place whenever and wherever we are willing to learn. Today we have Dan Cummings with us, thank you for being in band. So happy to have you. Let me just share a little bit with the public about you. Dan is a career educator. He's taught in a variety of educational settings from alternative high schools to college prep schools, parochial to public got the range of experience. He's in his 23rd years of educator, eighth year as a principal with degrees from Colorado State University and Middlebury College, an avid practitioner of the martial arts a watch out. And he's also an amateur photographer, Dan and his wife just celebrated 20 years of marriage salute to you and your wife, and spent the last six months building a small off the grid cabin in the middle of nowhere, Colorado, wild and crazy, then I'm so happy to have you with us. You bring not only a wealth of experience, but kind of a unique background in terms of your come up, and also what you're doing with the off the grid stuff. And so I'm happy to have you here because you're going to offer something different to our public than some of the people I've been interviewing. And we're all diverse and unique. And so thank you, Dan, for being here. It's such a pleasure to connect with you. You bet. Thanks for having me. So we're gonna go ahead and get started just by having you share it with everybody. And I usually start the show this way. How do you self identify? Where are you from? And can you tell us a little bit about your educational journey, whether as a learner or as professional? Yeah, you bet. You know, and I'll start again, but just by saying like, thanks for having me on. Thanks for welcoming me into this. I'm really excited to be here and, and happy to be talking to you today. I'm so self identity, you know, I identify cisgendered straight white male, you know, I see myself in that, that class of privilege that comes with all of those things. I had a pretty blue collar upbringing.
Dan Cummings 3:04
You know, run of the line, public schools, did pretty well was able to go to college after that. So I feel blessed with that.
You know, and I have been a career educator ever since I graduated college, like you mentioned, there's my 23rd year in education. I've been I've taught every year including now I've been a principal for eight years, still teaching in a classroom this year teaching a senior English capstone class. You know, I think that working with kids in the classroom was the best way to run a school, you know, you really know what's going on that way. Other things in my identity. I am a practitioner of Zen Buddhism. I am a lover of all kinds of music. I am a husband, I am a friend to people. I am a son, and very involved with my mother and father as well. In terms of where I'm from, you know, my father was military. So I traveled all over growing up, you know, I was born in Mississippi, lived in Japan, lived in New York, lived in Texas, lived in Colorado, you know, and that kind of has continued into my adult life. lived in Mexico and Chiapas lived in Honduras, lived in Guatemala, I lived in New York, Ohio, Austin, Texas. And now I am circled back to to Colorado. And in terms of my educational journey, you know, I don't know, I'm one of those that kind of just woke up into teaching. I didn't plan on doing that. To begin with. I had a professor in college that, you know, just kind of took me under his wing and got me involved in a program called the Fresh Air Fund out of upstate New York working with children. And that just took me on my track into into teaching. So you know, I've done it. I've done it for for a long time. Now, as as Roberto mentioned, I'm currently living in a rural area of Colorado. My wife and I are building we have we have a small house that we've just completed, completely off grid, solar, sustainable all of that. And I am currently a principal at a small title one school. Again, in the mountains, we are 86% of my students qualify for free and reduced lunch, we have a large transient population, the major economy in the area is casinos, and gold mining. And that comes with a lot of abuses in the community, drug abuse, you know, physical, mental, emotional abuse, and a lot of poverty as well. So, you know, I have a very strong faculty, a strong group of teachers that I'm working with, when we have a very challenging, challenging group of students and families that we work with great people, great kids, a lot of generational challenges for them to overcome. So that's kind of me in a nutshell, you know, where I started and where I'm at right now.
Roberto German 6:01
Thanks, thanks for sharing. Man, you have such an interesting experience in terms of different places you've lived and been. In surely you've seen a lot and that's influenced you. I want to focus our conversation on on where you're at, and leading this rural school because I think there's room to talk more about the experiences in rural areas, and what education looks like there, you started getting into a little bit of, of the challenges that you experienced in that setting. You mentioned high poverty over there. And talking about poverty and education, I think it's so important because it links so many groups of people across differences, you know, that that poverty thing is certainly a strain. And so, we'd love for you to talk about a little bit more about some of the challenges in the setting that you're in, and also to talk about some of the glow. So I'm gonna highlight in that particular setting, you mentioned, you have a good group of faculty. And I think it's important not just to talk about the negative things in the challenging things, but to also highlight those positive things that really fill our cup.
Dan Cummings 7:18
Yeah, absolutely. You know, starting with the grows, you know, in any small rural town, you know, there's an insular aspect to it. So students and families don't necessarily see beyond that. And similar aspect, you know, they don't see different options, they don't see different paths. And so when it comes to education, you know, if you generationally, nobody in your family has ever considered anything past, you know, middle school or past high school, you know, you're not necessarily coming up in an education system that is going to encourage you to push past that either. So, you know, in a lot of small towns, I'll speak for the district I'm in right now, you know, not a lot of parents have high school diplomas, necessarily, or not, definitely not a lot of parents have gone to college. So, you know, trying to get students to buy in and understand what education can be, is a challenge, because they're only hearing it on one side of their lives, you know, the the time they spend in school is very limited compared to the time they spend with influences outside of school. So, you know, getting them to understand that it could open doors, if they pursued in a certain way, is a challenge. So you have that, that generational, that generation gap of, you know, how an education can benefit you. You also have the, you know, maybe this is my opinion, you also have the controversy of, you know, public education isn't necessarily designed to benefit people in poverty or people in rural communities. You know, it's it's been designed for historically for, you know, elites is where it started. And, you know, we have a great education system in this country, because we do offer it to everybody. But it's also a very failing education system, because it's not offered equally to everybody, you know, equal access is not equitable, as we all know. And so that affects students in rural communities in in a lot of different ways. And I could go on for days about that, you know, you have a lack of a lack of opportunity as well, you know, whereas in a an urban environment, perhaps you have access to community colleges, you have access to partner with other schools, you have access to partner with other businesses or other opportunities for learning and a small rural town. You know, my total student population for six to 12 school is about 200 students, you know, the entire area maybe has, you know, I'd say 5000 people in it, you know, and that's over 20 square miles. A lot of that is farming. Not a lot of access to opportunities outside of school. So we get a lot of students that come in with a You know, a lack of a foundation, a lack of a direction and a lack of voices, you know, telling them where they could go or what they could be. You know, addressing that poverty piece of it. Being a community that's based in in casino money and mining, there's a huge amount of transients, you know, we have students coming and going, we have families losing jobs, we have a significant lack of available housing, because there's literally just not buildings up there. And similar to I would compare it to like a resort town, you know, whether that's on a beach, or in a mountain somewhere, where a whole lot of people come in as tourists, and a whole lot of people with money, have vacation homes, and they come in and they take advantage of the area. And they take advantage of the beauty that it offers and the activities that it offers for you know, one or two weekends a year. But what they leave behind is, is unaffordable housing for those of us that live there and leave behind, you know, seasonal work for the people who pass who are passing through looking for jobs, they leave behind, not a whole lot generated in property taxes, not a whole lot of support for school board's not a whole lot of community involvement. Because the people left behind who were living there. You know, they're living in low income housing, they're living in hotels, they're living in trailers. Some of my students are living on the street, which you don't think about that when you think about a rural community, but the poverty is the poverty is real. And that's a significant challenge for all of my for all of my students. Man, I said a lot there. But But let me let me summarize that is I think the biggest piece of it is that that lack of that lack of access, you know, and our school becomes a center to a community, we become a resource, like our biggest job, is providing food for families, you know, in education, takes a secondary role to making sure kids are fed, you know, to making sure kids have access to health care. So that that's a that's a big grow, you know, that's a big area. In terms of what's going on, well,
Roberto German 12:16
we don't have when you don't have the basics in place, it's hard for you to, you know, focus and say like, oh, yeah, you know, I'm really tuned into my education, like, yeah, hungry, you need to be fed.
That yeah, Maslow's you know, classic Maslow's hierarchy, you know, when we get kids coming in, and they haven't slept, or, you know, the other big piece of it, Roberto is like, you see, like, our elementary school, full, full classes, you know, our middle school pretty full, you hit the high school, though, you know, so many of the students in this community, you know, they hit 1617, and they need to contribute, you know, they, they're going to work on a farm, they're going to get a job, you know, making 10 bucks an hour, in some cases, because they need to contribute to their family. So by the time we hit, you know, sophomore, junior seniors in high school, you know, a lot of those kids have disappeared, because they're out working. So a big part of our high school program is is also a GED program. And recently, you know, really developing a work study program that's allowing these kids to earn some cash while still pursuing a high school degree.
Yeah, and again, this this theme of poverty is a strand that I wish communities across the nation that are tackling this would really connect and build and share stories and experiences, because you're saying a number of things that remind me of schools and areas in which I've served and you served, but with a different, different population. And yet, there's this commonality when it comes to this poverty piece. So thank you for sharing that. And yeah, you bet. You know, listeners are really processing this and considering ways in which we could help build that take down kick down the walls that separate us and connect across communities across these differences, with the hope of like being able to eradicate poverty and give people greater access. So we heard it, you know, you shared about these girls, and these challenges want to hear about some of the globe's want to hear about some of the highlights what what's, you know, what's filling your cup in this particular setting?
Dan Cummings 14:28
Yeah, absolutely. You know, I mentioned a second ago, I have a great faculty, you know, people people are in it with their eyes open, people are involved. People are, you know, very focused on what's good for kids and for families. You know, they're not getting paid what they should just like any other teacher out there, but their heart is in the right place, you know, and they come every day really, really wanting to work with kids. You know, and I put like, again, just to be clear, when I talk about poverty and I Talking about families, these kids and these families, they're good people, you know, they're in a position that they don't, you know, they don't necessarily see beyond their circumstances, but they're good people, the kids are hilarious, the kids are a lot of fun to work with their families as well, they're very supportive in one way, they appreciate what we're doing at the school, which, you know, you don't find it every school, you know, in some schools. So in my experience, at some schools, you know, there's a bit of entitlement or a bit of expectation, you know, most of our families, and most of our students don't have that entitlement, they really appreciate what we're trying to do, even if they're not able to engage it in at a level that, I would hope. So yeah, you know, just the day to day is fun, you know, just the day to day of the school is, is exciting, it's exciting to be a part of in a very positive way. I think that, you know, in the past year, you know, middle of COVID, somewhere in there, funding started freeing up, there started to be a lot a lot of grants, a lot of federal monies going out there to try and address, you know, the the consequences or the results coming out of COVID-19 pandemic. And one of the big glows that we have in our district right now, I'm here in the state of Colorado, the governor released a fairly large grant program to address needs and and you know, earmark that for rural communities. And, you know, me and a couple of my colleagues wrote a grant. And we're lucky enough to be a recipient of about $1.5 million last January, which is directly going into our school to build a career, a career and technical education program that was non existent. So I'm super excited to be a part of that, that's going to be a huge boon to the community, we're really working with, with the community and the way we develop that, for instance, one path we're taking is we're creating a Construction Trades Program. And it involves building a brand new building for our students where they will be able to, you know, learn hands on construction trades, on the campus, and kind of augmenting that, you know, an ancillary benefit is that they're going to be building small, tiny, tiny homes, in this construction trades building, which the city that we work with, has already donated land for it won't be offering hookups for so you know, the sustainability of the program is that we will be building tiny homes, which then go into the community for low income housing, you know, for families in the community that need that. So I'm really excited about getting that kind of program going. And I'm appreciative to the federal monies that, you know, the state is divvying out for this sort of thing. I'm glad that they saw us, I'm glad that they understand, you know, we can't wait, you know, we can't wait 10 years to fix what's going on, we need we need some help right now. So that's pretty, that's pretty exciting. And I would add, you know, just like I said, before, I'm one of the one of the positives in in the school I'm at right now, is that people recognize that we are really a community service, you know, that we're there to help families. And that education piece is a part of that. But at the end of the day, you know, getting kids and families connected with social services is equally or more important, in some cases, then, you know, then our math curriculum, I guess, and people understanding that and having that common vision, you know, really makes it really makes it go pretty smoothly. That's a, that's a big plus.
Roberto German 18:32
That's great. That's great, congrats on that $1.5 million grant.
Dan Cummings 18:36
That's a big deal. You know,
Roberto German 18:38
kudos to you and your colleagues would love to see more schools across the country focusing on helping our young people develop skills, especially trade skills. That's right, you open up all types of opportunities and present them more career paths that might be better suited for them. Because that's right, everybody does not learn the same way. So that is awesome. And then that
Dan Cummings 19:02
comes back to that, you know, like, public education, you know, with that idea of, you know, me growing up, the way I grew up, you know, that idea of college was always kind of, in my mind, you know, that ideas, college was always a conversation. But that's not necessarily the goal of every family or of every child. And so creating an education system that allows students to both, you know, find that that success of a high school diploma, or a GED while also, you know, finding finding a passion and a skill or a trade that they really want to involve themselves in, you know, not separating those two, not making it this or that, but, you know, we're gonna do both of those and value what value what some of these students, you know, want to do, you know, and again, I'm sorry, if I'm derailing, but but again, in a rural community like ours, actually, we don't have a community college. You know, we're four hours from the nearest you know, university and college But we do have access to construction and trades jobs, we do have access to culinary arts, our opportunities. So, you know, trying to meet the students where they're at, you know, and give them a reason and give them a, you know, that that basic public education, that also prepares them for something that is realistic that for something that is there for them to grab on to, you know, I think that
Roberto German 20:25
in some cases might be more beneficial, you know, college debt, and how people in the rat race, you know, versus, you know, young folks who are coming out with trade skills. That's right, leveraging that into great careers. That's right. I think what what you're doing is wonderful, while also meeting a need for the community by building those tiny homes. That's right. No, man, thank you. Thanks for sharing that. So what are some misconceptions that folks from the outside might have about settings like yours, who let your son these rural communities? I feel like sometimes we don't necessarily know enough, we don't talk enough about rural schools and rural. So what are some misconceptions that folks might have? Yeah,
Dan Cummings 21:19
I think that, you know, I think that the big one, you know, especially in the town, where I'm at, is often associating rural with kind of conservative or even like redneck kind of values. I think that that is, you know, stereotypes come from somewhere. But I also think that the way technology and social media and access online has changed that, you know, change that even in my lifetime. You know, my families are not all conservative. My families are not all redneck farmers, my families are not all, you know, just this, you know, very, very small box of people. You know, of all the schools that I've ever worked at, the school that I'm at right now has the largest population of gender non conforming students, you know, it has the largest population of the LGBT, q plus community, you know, percentage wise that I've ever seen in any school, you do have a lot of open mindedness, you do have a lot of what would be considered liberal values and progressive values. You know, and yeah, a lot of that is, is overlapped with the mining community and is overlapped with, you know, a very Republican leaning county overall. But, you know, I think a lot of people think that everybody in the community and everybody in the school, you know, leans one way politically, and that's just not, that's just not the case, a lot of very open minded people up here. Um, I also think and, and maybe this is, again, the outsider thing, but, you know, when we talk about outsiders coming into our community, they're often vacationers they're often tourists passing through, you know, and they see a very pretty, very beautiful Colorado mountain side, and they have very nice meals, and they stay in very nice hotels, you know, and I think they see the quality of living up here with some rose colored glasses, because once you know, what they don't see is where the the people serving them breakfast actually live, what they don't see is the, you know, where the the people taking them on tours, you know, what their their day to day life is actually like. So I think there's a mistake, you know, everyone's like, Oh, we want to live up there, you know, we want to be there. But they don't, they're seeing it from a from a very touristy perspective, not necessarily realistic for what is going on, in our town or around our town. You know, and I think that's a misconception that people definitely have. Um, what else would I say, you know, our population is, is, I would say, you know, majority, majority white families, but we have a significant community of immigrants, we have a significant community of Native Americans, we have a significant community of, you know, families that identify as non white for a variety of reasons. And so, you know, I think the community does get does get whitewashed a little bit. And that's just not the case. You know, when you think rural, it's important to think also of marginalized, you know, a lot of people in a rural community are people who have been marginalized in other places, and they're finding work in a rural community that they couldn't necessarily find, you know, in an urban environment. So, I think that answers your question.
Roberto German 24:43
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Again, I think there, there's not enough talk about rural communities and understanding the experiences there and how we can support and build and so I put reciate you offering that perspective factors to know what the work of justice looks like, in your school setting? Especially given that you mentioned these marginalize folks and people groups that perhaps many of us don't think about? Yeah. immigrant groups. And you you mentioned blanket, but I heard you say immigrant, for sure. You bet. And then And then you mentioned a couple other groups.
Dan Cummings 25:34
So Native American population. Absolutely.
Roberto German 25:39
So I'm curious to know what the work of justice looks like. Yeah.
Dan Cummings 25:44
I would say, you know, kind of repeating something that maybe already said, I think that, you know, on some level, you know, Justice looks like, combating generational poverty, you know, Justice looks like creating options, you know, Justice looks like finding a way to, you know, put the public education system to work for the people that it traditionally has not served by, by finding them options by creating these programs by, you know, if they're not, quote, unquote, college bound, you know, not beating them over the head for that, but finding a way to still be of service to them. I think, I think that that adds to, you know, that that builds on justice, for sure. I think more, you know, on a smaller scale, for me, in this particular school, you know, I think it's about keeping police as an example, keeping police out out of our hallways, you know, you've heard of the, sort of the, you know, school to prison pipeline, you know, I started thinking about it a little differently, you know, what I see, in my experience is more of a, you know, it's a birth to prison pipeline, you know, that if you're born in a particular sort of circumstances, you know, there's, there's a particularly high likelihood that you're going to wind up in our, in our prison system, you know, and the school is the school is in between that, you know, it's not the school that's creating that pipeline, this, the school is in the middle of that pipeline, they can either be a facilitator of that pipeline, but I'm trying to get our school to be an intervention, and that pipeline, that, you know, they come to students come into us with a particular background, you know, and we can either punish them and keep them going down that pipeline by, you know, having cops in our hallways, and, you know, getting these kids in trouble. Or we can we can be an intervention, you know, and using restorative practices and using resources and using alternates and giving them options, you know, try to get them out of that pipeline, by giving them another direction. So that's the mentality I'm trying to hold on to when it comes to justice is, again, like schools aren't, it's not a school to prison pipeline, or school is a school is a valve in that pipeline. But we do have, we do have the ability to divert that. And that's by working with those families and working with those kids, you know, and all respect all respect to people who are in the police force. But schools aren't schools aren't prisons, schools should not be run as prisons, and, you know, 14 and 15 year olds should not be getting arrested or taken out in handcuffs. So I think that's justice in a small rural school. Um, you know, and I think that we're gonna, when I'm talking about that, and I just talked about discipline, but I'm talking about, you know, restorative practices in terms of helping kids, you know, helping kids make better decisions and holding them accountable, but also, like, you know, that whole like, Um, let me back that up, helping kids and holding them accountable. But that whole, like, Oh, you have to learn a hard lesson, and you have to have grit, you know, all of that. I all my kids have had hard lessons coming into my school, they have grit, just by showing up in the morning. You know, that's, that's a, that seems to be a middle class, upper middle class value that, you know, my kids have mastered. So let's, you know, let's acknowledge that. And let's give them credit for that, like, sometimes literal credit for that. And let's, you know, help them see some other some other tools of success that that will help them in their future as well. Right, right.
Roberto German 29:20
Yeah, so not just grit but gravy.
Dan Cummings 29:23
Yeah. Yeah, that's exactly right. You know, and that idea, like, telling kids Oh, if you just work harder, you know, you're gonna do better. You know, that's not valuing the fact that they are working really hard already. You know, and they don't necessarily what know what that means, like you'll do quote, unquote, you'll do better. They don't have the vision of what that means. So if we can acknowledge that they're already working hard, that they're already like, just surviving, you know, and then give them different visions to choose from, you know, it's a way to partner with kids and with families that you know, I don't think that you know, public education, you You know, as a monster that it is, doesn't necessarily always pursue that, it's a lot easier to suspend a kid, you know, it's a lot easier to kick a kid out than it is to sit down and help that kid. See the strengths that they have? And how they if they reapply those strengths, you know, they're going to come out with a different outcome.
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