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Rural Schools Work To Improve Students' College Readiness

Students in 29 Northeast Tennessee high schools have more online course options this year, and their school staff members are receiving training to help them develop post-high school plans, under an initiative to boost college readiness.

Those are just a few of the changes happening at the mostly rural high schools to make students more college ready. The schools are part of the Northeast Tennessee College and Career Ready Consortium, which is backed by the Niswonger Foundation and which last year received one of the federal Investing in Innovation grants. The five-year, $21 million grant will serve 26,100 high school students.

The Rural School and Community Trust hosted an hour-long Webinar on the collaborative this week, the fourth in a series on rural school innovations. The goals of the group are to ensure all students, especially those from under-represented populations, graduate from high school prepared for college or a career; and to improve the likelihood that students successfully complete college. The Webinar should be posted by next week on the Rural School and Community Trust's Web site.

The Niswonger Foundation received the only i3 grant in Tennessee and was one of 15 recipients nationally in the competition's mid-sized "validation" category, for growing programs with emerging evidence of success.

The foundation has six major strategies to accomplish its goals:
• Expand dual enrollment programs;
• Increase Advanced Placement courses;
• Increase online learning courses;
• Establish a coordinating body (the Consortium) that will determine the courses to be offered through the strategies outlined above; and
• Provide additional college and career counseling resources to every high school student in the region.

College access for rural students has been a hot issue as of late. Students from rural areas have lower college enrollment rates than their urban peers, and nearly two-thirds of adults who stay in rural communities have a high school diploma or less.

The collaborative has hired nine college and career counselors who work with existing counselors to help students better access college, and says those new hires are making the biggest impact thus far. It also is using programs to identify students who should excel in rigorous courses, and is training district staff and volunteers to provide college and career support for students.

The collaborative also has been focusing on technology, ensuring schools have the needed infrastructure and equipment to take online courses.

One of the superintendents involved in the consortium, Vicki Kirk, of Greene County Schools, said the i3 grant is helping to overcome two big barriers—cost and transportation—to students enrolling in dual enrollment courses by providing textbooks and technology needed to offer distance learning classes.

Dale Lynch, director of Hamblen County Schools, said one of the big challenges his two district's two high schools face is teacher training, and the i3 grant is helping with that.

The 29 high schools involved said they wanted to offer more foreign languages, and the collaborative has them working together to share assets. By sharing instructors and using distance learning, every high school can offer five languages.

The schools also are working with parents, many of whom didn't go to college and fear what will happen to their children who do so, said Linda Irwin, director of school partnerships for the Niswonger Foundation. That can become an obstacle for students going to college. To solve that, the project is taking parents on college visits with students, hosting financial aid application workshops, and developing online tutorials.

The goals are ambitious:
• Every student will have access to an array of rigorous courses not limited by the district or school's size;
• At least 10 percent of students will graduate with at least one year of post-secondary credits;
• An additional 20 percent of students will graduate with at least half a year of post-secondary credit;
• Post-secondary enrollment rates will increase to 80 percent, from 70 percent;
• The rate of students continuing from their first to second year of college will increase by 15 percent.

The Niswonger Foundation had been working with schools in the area for more than a decade, but most of its focus had been on elementary and middle school. The federal grant has moved its work into the high school, but it plans to work with the middle schools on college readiness in the future.

It's an interesting collaborative that the federal government believes will show success, and I look forward to seeing how it fares.

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