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Innovation in Action: Strategies for change in rural school districts

An idea is a great start, but according to The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun, “What matters is the ability to see a problem clearly combined with the talent to solve it.”

This is particularly true of public education in rural districts where the needs are vast and the stakes are high. Education provides a clear pathway to develop and maintain a workforce that can keep a community thriving.  And while there may be common challenges in rural districts such as teacher recruitment and retention and lagging graduation rates, there is no magic bullet fix that will work across all rural schools.

Change requires a champion

While one advocate for change is a good start, a team of champions is better.  Together, representatives from the district, school, classroom, local business and others the community can look at their public education challenges from different angles. What may seem to be a barrier can be reimagined as an opportunity and solutions can be put into action with greater ease.

Change takes time

Berkun further noted, “No sane person ever believed in a kind of progress which advanced in an unbroken straight line without reverses and deviations and breaks in continuity. The dilemma is that, at any moment, it’s difficult to know whether we’re witnessing progress or merely, in a hill-climbing distraction, a short-term gain with negative long-term consequences.”

Change is happening

Rural school districts in North Carolina such as Rutherford County and Duplin County are experiencing increases in graduation rates and college readiness* (see stats below), but these successes did not happen overnight. Dramatic changes have been fueled by long-term commitment and continuous learning from what worked as well as what did not.

Rural school districts across North Carolina and beyond are putting their new ideas into action by:

1. Radically changing expectations for college and career readiness

“Just getting a high school diploma is no longer sufficient,” according to Duplin County Schools Superintendent Dr. Austin Obasohan. Through “The Duplin Promise,” the district is making a systematic effort to prepare every student for college and careers by infusing a college-going culture throughout the district, from pre-K through graduation.

Through the Rural Innovative Schools Initiative, all Duplin County high school students are exposed to rigorous academics and have the opportunity to graduate high school with an accumulation of college credits and potentially an associate degree.

2. Developing strong leadership at the classroom and school levels

As a former teacher, principal and graduate of Rutherford County Schools, Superintendent Dr. Janet Mason knows firsthand the power of leadership in navigating through change. In 2005, she spearheaded the launch of Rutherford County Early College High School (REaCH) on the campus of Isothermal Community College.

Support for principals and teachers was a vital component of REaCH and continues to play an instrumental role as early college strategies are applied throughout the district. School principals are provided with leadership coaching to help them guide the changes happening at their schools and teachers are given instructional coaching to help them implement new learner-centered strategies.

3. Promoting programs and policies that lead to high-quality teaching and learning

Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District (PSJA ISD) in Texas has rapidly become a leader in creating more academic opportunities for all students. Some of PSJA’s most successful programs such as the Dual Language Program, Early College Initiative and Dropout Recovery Program have been highlighted for effectively closing the gap to post-secondary education. The school district has also been a model for dropout prevention strategies through its early college for all students approach and the innovative relationship between the district and the local community college, South Texas College.

4. Bridging the gap between education, college and careers

In changing expectations and supporting schools and district leadership, we are seeing change happen. By working together, communities can accelerate the pace of innovation.  What happens in the classroom is only one part of the learning experience. Internships, apprenticeships, mentors and real world experience can help students connect their studies to real options for college and career.  Together local business, industry, higher education, faith based organizations and others can help light a spark that helps students see new possibilities for their futures and in their hometowns.

This perspective was published on the NC New Schools/Breakthrough Learning blog on November 18, 2015. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

*Graduation rates

  • Duplin graduation rate 2013-14 = 78.1, Duplin graduation rate 2014-15 = 83.4
  • Rutherford graduation rate 2013-14 = 78.6, Rutherford graduation rate 2014-15 = 81.9


**College Readiness

  • Duplin ACT proficiency 2013-14 = 39.0%, Duplin ACT proficiency 2014-15 = 46.5
  • Rutherford ACT proficiency 2013-14 = 51.1, Rutherford ACT proficiency 2014-15 = 56.8
Jeff Fleckenstein

Jeff Fleckenstein is director of school services supporting North Carolina’s Rural Innovative High Schools for NC New Schools/Breakthrough Learning.