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April 17, 2019

Rural Districts Face Unique Challenges—and Have a Unique Opportunity to Make Systemic Changes to Drive Success

By NIET Chief Strategy Officer Dr. Patrice Pujol

dodson branch school rural ed

Dodson Branch School, Jackson County, Tennessee

Rural superintendents and principals have to do it all: from driving an emergency bus route, to repairing a leaky faucet, to cutting the grass on the softball field—and that's in addition to of the fundamental role they play in assuring high-quality instruction in their buildings every day. The challenges rural districts and schools face in assuring the academic success of all students are unique. While they know the importance of supporting their teachers to provide excellent instruction and success for students, sometimes the myriad number of things that fall on their shoulders make prioritizing that support very difficult.

We at NIET have firsthand knowledge of the work in rural districts from our 20 years of supporting them in the field. Take for example Dodson Branch Elementary in Jackson County, Tennessee. When Dodson Branch School first partnered with NIET in the 2013-14 school year, the small, rural school almost two hours away from any big city and with almost half of its student population defined as economically disadvantaged, was stagnating with a 3 rating out of a possible 5 on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS). According to Principal Tammy Woolbright, the students and teachers were disengaged, and meetings to develop instructional skills lacked relevance to individual student need and follow-up supports that drive NIET's system for educator growth. 

With NIET's help, Dodson Branch worked to build a stronger school culture, centralized around growing teachers in their practice and school capacity through formalized teacher leadership roles. The continuous reflection on practices through professional learning meetings worked to move every teacher forward, and in turn, every student with them. The school has now scored a perfect 5 on TVAAS for multiple years and is regularly visited by other educators to model its success. There's a pride in the school now, Woolbright explains, and teachers travel to colleges in other communities to share about DBS' progress and how its practices can be replicated. This culture shift has also led to increased teacher retention. While Dodson Branch was once seen as a stepping stone to more attractive locations at which to teach, it now enjoys an almost 100% teacher retention rate.

Another example is Slaton ISD in Slaton, Texas, a small rural district outside of Lubbock. In 2014 the Slaton Independent School District (Slaton ISD) began implementing NIET's system districtwide. The NIET system provided Slaton with the structure to put in place expert teachers (master and mentor teachers), who would then lead the faculty in developing effective instructional strategies. All teachers were regularly coached and received timely feedback on their practice. The results have been significant. For example, at Slaton Junior High, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the standard on the Texas state achievement test rose from below 60% in 2013 to above 70% in 2017.

slaton junior high achievement gap

Our experience tells us that the challenges facing rural districts as they try to develop systems of professional learning and support for their schools are many. They often lack access to a deep talent pool of effective educators and have a high turnover rate among teachers and leadership, making it difficult to find instructional leaders and coaches with high levels of instructional expertise. Instructional coaching systems can be relatively expensive especially if positions need to be added at a time when budgets are stretched thin. To be effective, coaching protocols must be followed with fidelity and coaches' skills must continually be developed, but rural districts often lack the ability to access the necessary training to assure this level of expertise and development. Furthermore, school leaders have to create a culture of trust and collective learning, but rural leaders often operate in isolation without access to peer collaboration.

A partnership with NIET can help rural districts overcome these types of barriers. Our 20 years of experience in working in rural districts have shown that developing systems of support and coaching for rural teachers and leaders leads to higher retention rates and improved student achievement. By investing in human capital and leveraging the talents of those people most able to make a difference—teachers and the leaders who support them—NIET has seen excellent results in rural schools across the country.