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Federal Grant Application Sparks New Rural Tennessee Collaborative

Some school districts won't win money from the U.S. Department of Education's competitive grant programs, but simply going through the application process has helped jump-start initiatives.

Five rural Tennessee districts were part of a much larger group of 54 rural districts in the state to apply for a federal Investing in Innovation grant. They won't know whether they won until November, but five of those districts decided to form a new professional development collaborative, the Tennessee Valley Learning Network. The network is open to educators in Bradley, Marion, Monroe, Polk, and Rhea counties in southeast Tennessee.

"If we get the grant, we will have to form pockets of collaboratives across the state, so we decided, 'Why wait on the grant?'" said Jared T. Bigham, executive director of the Tennessee Rural Education Association. "We can leverage existing resources and start supporting each other now. This is the first of what we hope will be a movement of collaborative generation across the state."

Bigham cited purchasing power and grant applications as two additional areas the five districts could work together on in the future.

Joe Wood is a senior director for Battelle for Kids based in Columbus, Ohio, and he worked with the 54 rural Tennessee districts on their federal i3 application. Wood and Bigham decided to reach out to the five rural districts to form this collaborative.

Each district had an average of 3,500 students, but they served a total of roughly 28,000 students. Their goal was to pool existing resources to support each others' professional development efforts to save money.

Each system identified a key area where they were strong and could offer help to others, such as Common Core Strate Standards, value-added growth, formative instructional practices, or professional learning communities, Bigham said.

The collaborative launched at the end of this summer, and the biggest challenge thus far has been time. It's been hard to coordinate schedules from five districts to set up professional development sessions, and they've used video conferencing as a solution, Bigham said. Each district has at least one video conference unit, so a couple of districts might be physically present to view a training while others will watch it remotely. All videos also are being archived.

Bigham offered the following practical advice for rural districts looking to start similar collaboratives:
• Identify key people/teams that represent each district and can attend monthly meetings regularly.
• List one to three action steps each meeting that are carried out before the next month's meeting. This is very important so that, in the words Joe Wood, "You are not meeting just to be meeting."
• Create a Memorandum of Understanding for each system to sign to add a tangible artifact that ties the districts together.
• Involve more than just central office staff in the meetings.

For more information on the network, check out this Chattanooga Times Free Press story.

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