Partnership Supports Innovation in Tennessee Rural School Districts as They Respond to COVID-19

September 3, 2020

Partnership Supports Innovation in Tennessee Rural School Districts as They Respond to COVID-19

Early lessons and trends point to benefits of collaboration and increased need for educator support and training

This school year, The Ayers Foundation, the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET), the Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning and Innovation, and the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) are partnering to support 15 Tennessee rural school districts as they address the unique challenges of teaching and learning during COVID-19. This partnership – the Tennessee Rural Acceleration and Innovation Network (TRAIN) – was established to support rural districts in particular as they design and implement comprehensive plans and professional learning for supporting the continuity and acceleration of learning throughout 2020-21 – including for both virtual and in-person school settings.

Starting this summer, TRAIN districts have engaged in weekly collaboration to develop continuous learning plans, design and provide professional development, and problem-solve key issues. The network includes the five districts that The Ayers Foundation supports – Decatur, Henderson, Lawrence, Perry, and Unicoi County Schools – and 10 others that were selected to further The Ayers Foundation's and Governor Bill Lee's efforts to support and prioritize those in rural Tennessee. Those districts include Benton, Chester, Gibson SSD, Hardin, Haywood, Henry, Hickman, Lauderdale, Paris SSD, and Wayne County Schools. Of the 15 TRAIN districts, eight are considered economically distressed or at-risk by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

"Supporting rural Tennessee has been my passion, and this is a moment when I believe philanthropy must play a role in ensuring students and teachers in rural Tennessee have what they need to be successful," said Janet Ayers, president of The Ayers Foundation. "Rural Tennesseans are facing many of the same challenges as those in larger or better resourced counties, and we want to support them to be successful for the 2020-21 school year.”

"For students to be successful, equipping rural educators with what they need to accelerate learning this school year will be critical," said Dr. Candice McQueen, CEO of NIET. "We are proactively supporting districts to be ready for a variety of scenarios in 2020-21 and helping their teachers to strengthen instruction – regardless of in-person or virtual teaching – while building relationships and growing learning with a new group of students this fall."

TRAIN districts are utilizing guidance and tools from the Tennessee Department of Education, NIET, and the Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning and Innovation. Districts focused first on meeting foundational needs – purchasing more devices and increasing internet access – to be able to deliver virtual instruction. As purchasing, funding, and planning came together, attention shifted to delivering successful virtual instruction. Now, districts are working with NIET and Ayers Institute consultants to finalize Continuous Learning Plans and design and execute on ongoing professional learning and instructional support for 2020-21.

Based on the experiences of these rural districts, five key trends have emerged that provide a foundation for strengthening learning and future policy recommendations:

1. Provide instructionally focused support and training for virtual teaching and learning.

While the TRAIN districts vary in approach, they have all prioritized teacher support. Districts that have established formalized lead teacher roles – positions with clear expectations and additional pay, often supported by CARES Act funding – have elevated those educators to lead their virtual transition, which has built capacity. Teacher leaders have gone first to show their peers what virtual instruction can look like, and they are developing and sharing common lessons and videos for their grade or subject so other teachers don't have to start from scratch. Many came back to school early to support the transition and collaborate with their principals around a virtual or hybrid approach, and some will continue to lead virtual professional learning communities throughout the year to support collaboration and sharing of best practices.

2. Set clear expectations and connect technology tools to instructional practices.

It is more than just learning a new platform – it’s about learning new strategies. Being intentional and consistent when introducing technology tools and platforms helped teachers use the tools effectively and connect the new tool to how they would actually use it. In TRAIN districts, leaders asked teachers to use the new tool or platform like a student would, and the leaders modeled the role of the virtual teacher, showing how lessons and strategies can transform into the virtual space. This highlights how professional development can be embedded in everyday context to provide educators with more focus and clarity, building their confidence instead of their fears.

3. Support for virtual instruction must continue throughout the year.

While the classroom may look different, the principles of effective teaching are the same whether learning is happening in-person or online. As teachers get to know their students, they can learn where to modify assignments, enhance or adjust visuals, or step in with 1:1 support – just as they would in a physical classroom. And in a virtual environment, they have learned that it can be seamless to accommodate some aspects of a student's IEP, such as read-aloud or contrasting text. TRAIN districts are planning now for how they can provide ongoing support and coaching to help educators understand how to leverage virtual tools within the context of holding a high bar for all students.

4. Provide networking opportunities and common tools for rural leaders.

Rural leaders typically wear many hats, with the same handful of leaders tasked with every district office job. The simple task of setting aside weekly, scheduled time to thought partner has given district leaders permission to step back and take the time to think bigger picture during a moment when there is a rush to solve every challenge. Checking thinking and researching ideas together has been a primary part of the network as we introduce templates, tools, and resources that can assist with planning and implementation.

For example, TRAIN network consultants all used the Tennessee Department of Education's Continuity of Learning Plan rubric and NIET's 2020-21 Planning Guide to discuss scenarios, expectations, and ideas to ensure district plans had considered this year from every angle – unfinished learning from the spring, support for virtual instruction and feedback, curriculum expectations for each modality, staffing ideas and scheduling, equity for all students, and family communication. Many templates and tools that resulted from these discussions have helped the entire network, and they have also built districts' capacity to efficiently problem-solve and communicate throughout the year.

5. Recognize that virtual learning offers potential benefits for rural communities over the long term.

TRAIN districts have realized the importance of all teachers gaining confidence with virtual instruction, including those who are starting the year in person. Districts are also working to use virtual tools to increase collaboration across their district so teachers can share resources. Many mapped out lessons with teacher leaders during the summer so they had a bank of virtual resources for the first several weeks of school. Additionally, many are coaching their teachers to embed virtual learning into in-person teaching as much as possible, so both teachers and students will be more comfortable with making a transition – whether due to the virus or an inclement weather day. This can only continue to happen if there are meaningful investments by internet providers and government officials to ensure connectivity in rural America. Many TRAIN districts now have devices and educators equipped to teach online but are limited by the lack of bandwidth in rural Tennessee.

In addition to ongoing collaboration with members of the Ayers Institute and NIET, TRAIN districts will gather for regular network meetings throughout the year to problem-solve common trends and challenges. They will also receive professional learning tailored to their district needs both now and throughout the year as they learn and talk with teachers about what they most need. In addition to these direct supports, SCORE will provide support in learning along with the network and in sharing best practices that can benefit other Tennessee districts.

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