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Rural Schools Group Joins National Superintendents' Organization

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Twenty-five years after it was created as part of the Annenberg Challenge to improve public education, the Rural School and Community Trust is moving in with the AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

Robert Mahaffey, the executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust, will continue to lead the organization as it enters into a "partnership" with the national superintendents' group. The Trust's board of directors will also remain intact, and funding will remain separate.

Representatives from the two organizations said the partnership—in which the Trust will operate as a kind of subsidiary of the AASA—will allow both organizations to play off each other's strengths and expand their reach. They will also formally be able to collaborate and pursue joint opportunities, including grants, together.

Nearly 70 percent of the AASA's superintendents hail from rural districts. And the Trust has a tremendous amount of research and expertise in rural education and rural communities that the AASA currently doesn't have, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at the AASA. The two groups already collaborate on things like teacher recruitment and training in rural schools and school leadership development initiatives in rural areas, Mahaffey  said.

"It's just a great natural fit," Mahaffey told Education Week. "We have school superintendents in rural places who are the bedrock of the delivery of education services to our rural students, and supporting their communities. This seems like a marriage made in heaven as they say."

"We are very excited about the prospects," he continued. "We know that we are going to be able to provide services, and supports, advocacy, and policy work for rural children, families, and communities across the country. We view this as a tremendous opportunity."

The Rural School and Community Trust's network of consultants and professional-development providers will provide their expertise to the AASA, Mahaffey said. 

The Trust has its roots in a $46.75 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation, part of the philanthropy's $500 million grant program to improve public education.

More than 9 million students attend rural schools, according to the 2017 publication of "Why Rural Matters," a report by the Trust on the state of rural education. And rural schools educate a complex mix of students from different races, ethnicities, and income levels. High transportation costs, college and career access, and the lack of widespread high-quality early-childhood programs continue to be challenges, according to the report.

AASA approached The Rural School and Community Trust about joining forces. When the AASA refreshed its goals earlier this year, expanding support for rural superintendents, including through networking opportunities, conferences, research, and advocacy, was added as a priority, Ng said. The respective boards approved the partnership in October.

"It was an alignment of opportunities that were mutually beneficial," she said.

Dan Domenech, the AASA's executive director, said: "Through this partnership, our organizations will leverage each other's mutual efforts and supports for rural superintendents to offer a multifaceted set of resources, including networking, advocacy updates, professional learning, webinars, reports and more."

The partnership comes at a time when rural communities and concerns are attracting increased national attention after rural voters played a pivotal role in the 2016 presidential election. The election shined a light on rural communities, their experiences, challenges, and concerns. Similarly, rural schools also need attention, Ng said.

"If we can ensure that students in rural areas have opportunities that are equitable to those in higher-resourced areas, that's only a boon to our nation's economy," she said.

Photo caption: Students at Datil Elementary School in rural Datil, New Mexico, attend the morning flag-raising ceremony. The school has 10 students.

--Swikar Patel/Education Week-File

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