Category Archives: Rural Education

Bleak Pictures of Rural Communities Are Not the Full Story

From lobsters to bikes to HBCUs, Bellwether has covered a breadth of topics tied to rural education over the last six years. While we are by no means the first group to do in-depth research on rural schools and communities, we were among the first in the education reform community to begin thinking critically about policy solutions for rural schools. And as more and more of our peers have turned their attention to the rural context, we’ve realized that there’s a lack of basic understanding of the facts about rural schools and communities. 

To help address that problem, we’ve put together a new resource: “Wide Open Spaces: Schooling in Rural America Today.”

This deck pulls together data and research on education, economic development, and more into a coherent fact base to explain the current state of rural communities and schools. It begins with an overview of the variation of communities within the rural designation in terms of their locations, economies, strengths, and challenges. For example, resort communities like Eagle County (Vail), Colorado and impoverished communities like many along the Mississippi Delta are both considered rural but have dramatically different geographic, economic, educational, and social contexts. Continue reading

Bellwether Recognized For Core Value of Synergy as Key Partner in $20 Million Grant

Collaborating across teams sounds simple, but it’s not easy, and it has even been described as “dangerous.” 

When organizations and individuals join forces with those outside their immediate circles, they do so to reach common goals, recognizing that their combined efforts, if synergistic, can create greater impact than their separate ones. But because human beings, and the groups with which we affiliate, bring our cultures, jargon, preferred solutions, and power dynamics to collaboration, synergy is not inevitable — or easy. It requires deliberate effort, a willingness to work outside of one’s typical patterns, and a desire to meld together the best of various disciplines to provide holistic solutions for complex problems. 

Synergy matters because education is complex: its problems are not one-dimensional, so its solutions can’t be either. 

Entering our tenth year as a nonprofit, Bellwether has long harnessed our organizational superpower of synergy — and in fact it’s one of our core values. We intentionally bring together people with different specialties, work experiences, identities, political affiliations, and approaches to advance a shared mission of dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved students. Some of my colleagues are former teachers who think through the lens of facilitation and skill-building when working with adults. Some, like myself, come from the background of evaluation, and reference the scientific method when we approach problems. Others have a business or consulting background and think about making organizations more effective and joyful places to work. Still others within Bellwether think about the policy contexts in which these organizations operate. 

This approach is getting some recognition. In late September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a five-year grant worth $20 million to a collaborative partnership involving Bellwether Education Partners, Westat (the lead grantee), RMC Research, and Academic Development Institute to support a National Comprehensive Center (“National Center”) aimed at improving educational outcomes for all students, closing achievement gaps, and enhancing the quality of instruction. Through this work, we’ll get to take synergy to the next level by leveraging skill sets within our team and across these partnering organizations. 

Some context: Since 2002, regionally based comprehensive centers (RCCs) have been quietly providing capacity-building services to education agencies across all 50 states and territories. Funded by the Department of Education, RCCs are intentionally focused on the specific needs of the state and local education agencies they serve, which can vary based on local priorities, policies, and student populations. 

Until now, the benefits and lessons from this targeted support have remained largely within the states and regions being served. The Comprehensive Centers have done important work, but they have lacked the synergy superpower. Continue reading

Why Do So Few Kids Walk or Bike to School in My State?

When I was a teacher in Connecticut, most of my students walked to school. I taught just a few blocks from downtown, so that made walking a pretty reasonable option. However, that wasn’t the norm in the rest of New England, and it would be really exceptional in my current home state of Kentucky. In fact, only 3% of students walk or bike to school in the “East South Central” states of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

Walking and biking to school varies by region.

Nationally, about 10% of students walk or bike to school every day, but actual likelihood of walking to school varies significantly by region. Why are students in my region ranked lowest in the country in active forms of transportation, and what are the “Pacific” states of California, Oregon, and Washington, with the highest rates of students walking or biking to school, doing that we aren’t?

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Media: “One HBCU and One Black-Led Charter School Team Up to Ensure Success for Rural Students of Color” in EdPost

My colleagues and I recently conducted in-depth case studies of four rural charter schools that outperform state and district averages in reading and math. We then published those case studies, and the lessons they surfaced, in a new website: ruralcharterschools.org.

Today, I have a new piece out in Education Post that profiles one school we visited, Crossroad Academy Charter School in Gadsden County, Florida. The piece explores the unique relationship between Crossroad Academy and a local HBCU, and explains how Crossroad students benefit from that relationship:

When Crossroad’s leader Kevin Forehand, an alum of Florida A&M and Gadsden County native, began his tenure as principal, the school’s student body was growing rapidly. As a result, the school needed a larger teaching force. Mr. Forehand recognized the importance of recruiting and hiring young, ambitious Black talent to teach at his school, and later developed a mentorship program between his alma mater and Crossroad Academy. Through this partnership, university staff and students help Crossroad high school students prepare for the college application process and review their application materials. In return, all Crossroad seniors apply to Florida A&M to ensure that they have at least one high-quality postsecondary option.

Read the full piece at Education Post and learn more about other high-quality rural charter schools at ruralcharterschools.org.

How Four Rural Schools Reminded Me of the Fundamentals of Quality Education

Over the past year, Kelly Robson, Brandon Lewis, and I visited charter schools in four rural communities across the country. As we drove into town to speak with school and community leaders, we expected to uncover challenges that rural charter schools face which are distinct from those in urban areas — and we did. Our findings are included in a new website and highlight some of the constraints specific to operating a charter school in a rural setting. 

But we also found many commonalities between what make these schools tick and the characteristics of successful schools in more urbanized settings. These commonalities were a useful reminder of some fundamental elements of a high-quality school that too often get lost in the shuffle. 

First, these schools were exemplars of consistent, local leadership.
Those we spoke to made it clear that their school’s success was enabled by local champions with sustained relationships to the community. The school staff had the community’s trust and confidence. Moreover, in three out of the four schools we visited, the school leader had been in their role for ten or more years, a startling contrast to the national average tenure of just over four years. Schools’ local leadership, and the stability of that leadership, helped the schools grow local roots and sustain their missions and visions. 

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