Breakout session recap from the 2016 National Forum on K-12 Philanthropy.
An increasing number of donors are shining a light on the unique challenges associated with delivering high-caliber education to rural areas. What can philanthropy do to bolster such a sizeable portion of the K-12 student population in the United States?
One of the primary challenges of scaling and innovating across rural districts is these districts make up more than half (57 percent) of all public districts in the country, while educating approximately one-quarter (11 million) of all students nationwide.
“If you have been someone who has invested in urban education reform, so much of that playbook is really hard to carry out in rural areas,” said Dan Fishman, vice president for growth at IDEA Public Schools, a prominent charter-school network based in Texas.
Fishman cited these statistics during a breakout session he moderated on the challenges facing rural education at the 2016 National Forum on K-12 Philanthropy, held in Redwood City, California.
Fishman was joined by Nancy Dishner of the Niswonger Foundation in Tennessee, Cal Baker of the Vail Public Schools in rural Arizona, and Terry Ryan of Bluum, an Idaho-based organization that supports innovative school models across all sectors.
Nancy Dishner opened by discussing Niswonger’s work in promoting college access and counseling because most rural students are first-generation college students, while also providing professional development for teachers to teach Advanced Placement courses.
With financial support from Niswonger, 18 college advisors work across 31 rural high schools in central Tennessee to help students access higher-education opportunities.
Terry Ryan explained how the Albertson Foundation in Idaho has helped them start the conversation and create buy-in that innovation is even possible in these rural areas.
A shared challenge among the panelists was the high rate of turnover in rural schools, especially at the leadership level. Baker described turnover as “strangling.” Dishner said that Niswonger tries to combat turnover through immersive professional development that makes school leaders feel valued.
“We have taken the approach of being very proactive in looking at how we can provide the best quality professional development for those individuals,” said Dishner. “And that’s really how we’ve tackled it is bringing together the opportunities for our building level leaders to learn the best skills possible and how to manage their schools.”
Tony Lewis, executive director of the Donnell-Kay Foundation in Colorado, discussed during Q&A the difficulty of introducing innovation into rural areas.
“The struggle that I’ve had when I go out and listen to rural districts is what we get is a plea for resources and in the same, frankly, tired way of doing business,” Lewis said to murmurs of agreement from other donor attendees.
A new report from Bellwether Education Partners explores the promise and potential pitfalls of introducing personalized learning models to rural schools. Among the obstacles are staffing shortages, lack of technological access, and resistance to completely overhauling a school or institution that has been a longstanding fixture of a given community.