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Building Will in Rural Communities to Support Student Achievement

Rural communities struggling to mobilize their stakeholders should find local partners, identify a hook to build interest, and give opportunities to turn talk into action.

That was part of the strategy suggested last week by Doris Terry Williams, executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust during a webinar on rural dropout prevention and recovery.

Williams drew on her experience with this kind of work in Warren County, N.C., in 2007, and she presented it during "Utilizing the Village: Building Community Support for Dropout Prevention and Recovery Work in Rural Communities," which was hosted by federal officials.
Williams was the latter of two presenters; the Rural Education blog featured the first presentation in a post last week.

In Warren County, Williams said the goal of the Rural Trust was to help the community organize itself to create and implement a vision of success for its children. Three questions guided the efforts:
• What would a community look like that ensures success for all of its children?
• What relationships must be in place for children to succeed and thrive?
• What is the community capacity to ensure success for all of its children?

Rural Warren County enrolled about 2,800 students, and its educational reputation and outcomes had declined through the years. Residents needed to start by having some difficult conversations on topics such as race and poverty because they couldn't figure out where they needed to go without being honest about where they were, Williams said.

The Rural Trust, a national rural education advocacy group, found a community-based organization—the high school alumni group— and worked with it to form discussion groups of eight to 12 residents. Those groups met for four two-hour meetings, and their conversations covered questions such as "How has education affected our lives?" and "What is causing Warren County children and youth not to succeed?"

The talks helped spark new relationships and partnerships, as well as develop individuals' confidence to take action, Williams said. The community changed its attitude around the well-being of children and youth, and its input took the form of an action plan.

Williams recommended finding local partners who can take the lead and give credibility to the visioning process. From there, those involved should find a hook, such as data, an economic imperative, or students' stories, to build interest among citizens. Finally, the process needs to allow those talks to turn into action.

Williams said one of the issues that arose during the Warren County discussions was students feeling as if they weren't connected to caring adults. The community responded by recruiting artists and photographers who showed students how to document older generations' stories. When the discussion groups identified apathy as a problem, they asked churches to designate members to attend public meetings and report back on what was happening.

The Rural Trust has published more in-depth reports on the Warren County project, and those are posted online.

Most participants in the webinar gave positive feedback, although some said their districts were too rural for the ideas suggested.

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