Rural education needs innovators to thrive

Rural Idaho is undergoing significant demographic change. The state’s rural population is aging and seeing more of its younger residents migrate to the state’s population centers and beyond for employment and education.

Idaho is a microcosm of trends playing out across large swaths of the American interior. According to 2014 Census data, nearly 60 percent of rural counties shrank in population last year, up from 50 percent in 2009. William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, reports, “Almost eight in 10 of the counties that lost population over the past three years were outside of metropolitan areas.”

As the economy changes, education becomes even more important for the revitalization of rural communities. Rural education needs to reinvent itself to sustain itself, to help preserve  local communities, and to ensure learning is relevant to students.

A number of innovators across the country show potential paths forward for Idaho. As a member of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation’s Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho (ROCI) task force, I have had the opportunity to visit with district, charter  and community leaders across the country doing transformative work in education for rural communities.

In Dublin, Georgia, I met district Superintendent Chuck Ledbetter and his team, who are working to convert their local district into a “charter district,” in response to significant economic and social change. Under Georgia law, a charter district operates under the terms of a five-year contract between the State Board of Education and the local district. Charter districts receive flexibility from state rules and regulations in exchange for greater accountability for outcomes and there is an emphasis on transferring power from the central office to principals and teachers.

This idea builds on nearly 25 years of charter school experience across the country. According to Ledbetter, “the charter system has given us the flexibility from rules that allow us to do more for kids…and allows us to pilot new ideas.” These approaches include launching a charter school with four local district partners, and creating three themed K-5 charter schools.

Elementary school principal John Strickland said the district’s charter status allowed a “culture shift. It triggered a change in mind-set. We don’t have to do things here because of the system. We do things because we think it works for kids.”

In Arizona, the economic crisis of 2008 was the trigger for the launch of the Vail School District’s Beyond Textbooks (BT) program. In just seven years, BT has grown from a solution for one school district into an online curriculum that facilitates the ability of over 10,000 teachers in over 100 district and charter schools across three states (AZ, WY, and ID) to share their best lesson plans, ideas, and instructional resources online. Participating school districts and charter schools have seen their spending on textbooks drop from $55 a student to near zero.

These savings are especially important for small districts and charter schools that lack scale. Beyond Textbooks breaks down barriers by bringing together a mass of educators to move the needle, solve problems and get results for students. Or, as Shad Housley, superintendent and principal of the 87-student Pomerene School District in Arizona said, “other districts not using BT are spinning their wheels while we are seeing real academic gains.”

Rural schools need to adapt to survive. Fortunately, there are educators across the country quietly transforming the way education and learning are delivered to rural students and in the process revitalizing their communities. Idaho is well positioned to build on these efforts if it continues to embrace innovative uses of technology and alternative governance structures like chartering.

Terry Ryan is CEO of BLUUM (www.Bluum.org), and the Idaho Charter School Network. He is also a member of the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho (www.rociidaho.org).