Rural Innovators in Education: How Can We Build on What They Are Doing?

Terry Ryan – May 2015

Changes in rural America—from population loss to changing economic realities—mean that schools in these communities must often innovate to survive. The future opportunities available to rural children and the economic health of the communities themselves depend in large part on the quality of local schools. Following the example of urban leaders that have fought to retain families, rural leaders are increasingly embracing “new ways of doing things,” such as chartering, ed-tech, and charter-district partnerships.

In Rural Innovators in Education, Terry Ryan of the Idaho Charter School Network looks at examples of this trend, using his findings to develop five policy lessons for Idaho and other rural states. Case studies provide lessons from three leading education improvement efforts that are tackling the problem of how to improve rural education in the face of challenges such as population change and financial constraints.

The first profile focuses on Dublin City Public Schools, which has taken advantage of Georgia’s “charter district” law. By becoming a charter district, Dublin City Public Schools is more accountable to the state for student outcomes but also has increased flexibility from rules and regulations. These changes have helped revitalize a community that had been hit hard by a decline in manufacturing. Now, the district and local economic development authority work together to create programs, such as a career and technology academy, that help make Dublin one of the best regions in Georgia to do business.

Ryan next looks at an innovation that emerged in response to the Great Recession, Vail School District’s Beyond Textbooks (BT) program. The program gives teachers access to the district curriculum through a wiki and allows them to share their best lesson plans, ideas, and resources through an online commons. BT has allowed the district to go from spending $55 per student on textbooks to three dollars today. It now reaches more than 10,000 teachers in three states—Arizona, Utah, and Idaho.

The final profile looks at an unlikely collaboration between a district and charter school in rural Idaho. The Upper Carmen Charter School and Salmon School District—its authorizer—have not always had a congenial relationship, as the district board initially saw the charter as a threat to enrollment and budgets. However, in recent years, the two have come together to help improve educational opportunities for students in rural Idaho, sharing services for the good of the community.

Ryan concludes by offering five lessons for policymakers in rural states that could help improve educational opportunities for students:

  • Link education and community economic development
  • Break down barriers to innovation
  • Collect and report the data necessary for districts to compare their return on investment (ROI)
  • Find leadership where you can understand that districts and charter schools will attract different talents
  • Policies should allow rural districts and charters to pilot innovative uses of technology

Op-ed by Ryan in The Idaho Statesman