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Struggling to Survive in Era of Dwindling Resources

Sharing administrative and instructional services across rural districts can be a good compromise between autonomy and consolidation, according to a new study published in the Journal of Research in Rural Education.

That said, researchers found that some shared services worked better than others—distance education was a plus because it gave students more access without stressing teachers, but sharing teachers among schools seemed to do the opposite, straining morale and effectiveness.

"Stretching to Survive: District Autonomy in an Age of Dwindling Resources" was a case study on a four-district collaboration that had been in existence for more than 15 years. The study's authors were: Aimee Howley of Ohio University in Athens, Ohio;, Marged Howley of Oz Educational Consulting in Australia; Katie Hendrickson of Ohio University; Johnny Belcher of Pikeville High School in Pikeville, Ky.; and Craig Howley of Ohio University.

The study didn't identify the involved districts and instead used the pseudonym "Confluence Collaborative." The research is part of a larger investigation of seven districts nationally. All of the districts involved were suffering from a loss of students and resources, and they formed the collaborative to avoid consolidation and preserve their identities.

Researchers found two broad themes: tenacity in the face of decline, and strategies with limited sustainability.

On the issue of resources, some sharing efforts didn't work well. For example, the quality of textbooks and materials varied by district, and the collaborative could do little to help.

The collaborative also worked together to help districts deliver curriculum to students, which meant using distance learning, relocating teachers, and dividing teachers and administrators among schools. Many spoke highly of distance education, but neither teachers nor students saw any of the methods as adequate.

Researchers cautioned that their findings shouldn't be used as recommendations for other districts but said the collaborative provided a powerful example of the resourcefulness of rural districts.

They also noted that "sharing of buildings through school consolidation was the inevitable next step. This finding fits with research showing that shared services in rural locales—a strategy initially used to forestall reorganization—often leads to consolidation."

They suggested future research could look at what makes these collaboratives successful over a long period of time as well as how the community responds to these kinds of arrangements.

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