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Report: New Turnaround Model Needed for Rural Schools

A rural education policy expert and advocate says the current federal reform models are failing high-needs rural schools and urges lawmakers and education officials to implement and provide incentives for a new "community schools" turnaround option.

That model has worked well in high-poverty, low-performing urban settings and shows promise for rural districts said Doris Terry Williams, executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust, in a new report on reinvigorating rural schools.

"The current restructuring strategy for underperforming Title I schools requires the district to replace teachers and school leaders," she writes. "This strategy is often not feasible for rural schools that have a smaller pool of potential teachers and administrators from which to draw. Community schools are a promising alternative strategy for these schools in rural areas."

Williams' report, released last week by the non-profit Center for American Progress, examines the concept of community schools from a rural perspective and makes specific recommendations for how that model can be used effectively in rural settings. That study coincided with the release of another Center for American progress report by Isabel Owens on the impact of combining community schools and expanded learning options on educationally disadvantaged students.

The term "community schools" is sometimes associated with the phrase "neighborhood schools" and with emotional debates about school assignments and busing. But the community schools model of reform, Owens explains, has nothing to do with those issues. It refers to a comprehensive approach that aims to raise student performance by strengthening families and communities.

"Community schools aim to combat the environmental factors that can pose barriers to student learning by providing support services and academic enrichment to students, their families, and community members within the school. Using already laid brick and mortar, community schools challenge the limits of the physical school building to do more than offer academic instruction."

Community school models vary, Owens said, but share core principles.

  • A strong, strategically initiated partnership with at least one community organization to assist in the delivery of services and enrichment. Examples: universities, nonprofits, private businesses, faith-based groups, recreation clubs, and cultural institutions;
  • Support services that cater to students, families, and community members, such as health, mental, and dental care;
  • Programming focused on adult learning such as English as a Second Language, high school diplomacy equivalency programs known as General Educational Development, English literacy classes, and job training;
  • Extended hours and programming before and after school, and during the week- ends and summer, and
  • A leadership council or committee comprised of the school principal, teachers, school administrators, members of the partnering organizations, parents and community members.

Williams, in her report, examines the dynamics at play in high-poverty rural settings and, in addition to pushing for the community schools option, makes the following recommendations:

States and rural districts should develop a rural teacher recruitment strategy. States should permit local school boards to implement community educator certification programs, which would help move parents and community volunteers into the teaching profession in understaffed areas.

Rural schools and districts should remove barriers to substantive parental and community engagement in schools. Many current policies in schools and districts discourage parent and community involvement and the kinds of community partnerships that help children and families.

New-school planning should incorporate multiple community needs. For example, local governments should consider locating schools and child and family services under the same roof rather than building new or separate structures.

States should help to reduce financial risk to community school partners when they undertake new construction projects. Williams calls for Rural Joint Use Public Facilities Commissions in rural states to identify statutory and administrative barriers to joint-use facilities and recommend policy changes.

Congress and state legislatures should increase investments in community schools. Investments include state funding for strategic planning processes for community school development, increased federal funding for the Full Service Community Schools Program, and technical assistance through intermediaries from the Education Department for rural districts in competitive grant competitions.

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