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Rural Race to Top District Winners Hope to Be National Models

The two recent rural winners in the federal Race to the Top district competition hope to be national models on how to improve educational outcomes for poor, rural students. 

The Appalachian Renaissance Initiative is a consortium of 17 rural Kentucky districts that won $30 million, and Clarksdale Municipal School District in the Mississippi Delta was awarded $10 million. Of the five winners in this round, they were the only two to claim the rural priority, but at least one other Race to the Top district winner, a consortium of four districts in central South Carolina, also includes rural schools.

Applicants had to design proposals that would boost student achievement by focusing on personalized learning, and the rural winners had varied strategies to meet that goal. Federal officials said these winners "particularly shine a light on the innovative work going on in rural school districts across the country to tailor education for all students and provide school leaders and teachers with key tools that support them in meeting students' needs."

The Appalachian Renaissance Initiative narrowly missed winning this same federal grant in 2012, but the group continued working on its plans to improve education in the region. The lead applicant was the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, a public educational support agency governed by superintendents from rural Appalachian counties. The funds will serve 42,256 students in 101 schools, and nearly 70 percent of those students come from low-income families.

The ARI proposal has five components that it describes as integrated and programmatically interconnected: personalized learning environments, next-generation classrooms, accessible data systems, effective teachers and leaders, and college and career readiness.

Personalized learning, especially in rural settings, means access to technology to expand students' course options. ARI plans to develop an intra-district network of "next generation classrooms" that will give students access to: highly effective teachers in other districts, dual credit courses, data-portal housing online curriculum, tutorials, and study guides. Those classrooms will not be confined to traditional school day hours. ARI will spend more than $3 million in the first year of the four-year grant to equip all schools with distance learning capabilities, and middle and high schools also will receive videoconferencing dual display systems.

Students' college and career readiness will be enhanced by the use of personalized career pathways, and students will receive individualized learning plans and build e-portfolios. All teachers will have access to curricula that connects common-core standards to 16 career clusters through project-based learning experiences.

Some of the ARI districts were among the first in the state to pilot a new teacher and principal effectiveness system, and all 17 districts will use that new system during the upcoming school year. Instructional and teacher leaders will participate in ongoing trainings that emphasize advancing systemic personalized learning and creating sustainability through investing in staff. Nearly $800,000 will be spent annually on training stipends, and more than $900,000 annually will go toward personnel salaries.

The Clarksdale school district has taken a different approach to personalized learning. The district serves more than 3,150 students, 96 percent of whom are low-income and 98 percent of whom are black. The school district is one of the only full-scale magnet programs in the state in that it has eliminated neighborhood zoning to allow school choice throughout the district.

Roughly $4.1 million of the $10 million will go toward 23 additional positions that will be shared among schools, and that includes pay for teachers to work after school and on Saturdays to offer more personalized learning opportunities. About $1.1 million will go toward ensuring every student has an iPad, which enables an "any time, any place digital learning environment," according to the district's 402-page grant application. Some of the federal money will be used to expand and enhance those schools' offerings by providing supplies, such as a science lab for freshmen and visual and performing arts materials.

Its elementary schools have different themes, such as math and science and language immersion. Elementary students will feed into the intermediate school, which would have academies with teachers who focus on a theme and a limited number of students.

"With reconfiguration, the total number of teachers will remain essentially the same, but the configuration of students will change," according to the application. "This way, smaller, more personalized learning communities will be created, and being housed under one roof will allow students to have the option of exploring subject areas in other themes as permitted by the scheduling."

Middle school will start students' transition to the Cambridge International Exams, which are academic courses in various subjects that focus on promoting critical thinking, in-depth analysis, and strong writing skills. Education Week recently reported on the Cambridge program, which originated in England and can be found in only about 230 U.S. schools in 27 states. Clarksdale High School will become a full-fledged Cambridge school, and that means the school will require project-based learning and place a greater emphasis on group work and cooperative learning rather than lecture.

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