More advanced classes, more professional learning available when small districts work together.
Like small school districts in rural areas across the United States, those in the Appalachia region of Ohio face particular challenges—teachers are harder to recruit and retain, professional learning opportunities are infrequent for the teachers who are there, and advanced classes are limited because there are too few students to justify offering them. Not surprisingly, perhaps, only 30 percent of those who graduate from this area of southeast Ohio go straight to college, less than half the national rate. The percentage of adults over the age of 25 with college degrees in the region is 12 percent, also less than half the national rate.
Believing that they could better address those issues if they worked together, 21 small school districts in the southeastern part of the State decided in the fall of 2009 to form the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative (OAC). The districts were small, with some having fewer than 500 students. Collectively, however, they had 34,000 students; only Columbus and Cleveland school districts had more.
The districts in the OAC have leveraged this partnership to attract more than $25 million in public and private grants from a variety of sources, including the State’s Race to the Top grant and Straight A Innovation Fund. That financial support made it possible to give teachers more opportunities for professional learning about formative instructional practices, the use of value-added data to adjust their instruction, college and career readiness planning, and change leadership. It also connected them with peers in other districts who they can learn from, and helped increase the number of advanced classes offered across the collaborative.
“The glue that brought the districts together was the goal of enhancing opportunities for kids in rural communities,” said Brad Mitchell, who facilitates the collaborative on behalf of Battelle for Kids, a Columbus, Ohio-based not-for-profit that works with school districts on instructional improvement through the use of data.
Those efforts are paying off: the graduation rate among the districts increased from 85 percent in 2010 to 92 percent in 2012, more students are earning college credits while still in high school, more students are taking the ACT college entrance examination, and college enrollment is up.
Mitchell said the idea for the collaborative came from Jim Mahoney, Battelle for Kid’s executive director, who grew up in the region and served as a school superintendent there. “He believed that most education policy was formulated around urban issues, and rural areas were different and needed a different voice and different solutions,” Mitchell said. “The way to increase their clout was through collaboration.”
Alea Barker, the curriculum director of the 1,150-student Crooksville Exempted School District east of Columbus, Ohio, agreed that joining the collaborative has amplified her district’s influence. “My voice as Crooksville is a peep, but our voice as the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative is loud and bold and people listen, and that is the difference,” Barker said.
Professional Learning Transformed
Mitchell said the transformation of professional learning in the OAC districts is one of its biggest accomplishments. Before the OAC, he said, many districts offered “random acts of professional development” not connected to clear goals for improving learning. Now, he said, “If you ask the districts what is the biggest thing that’s different they’ll say they have an intentional and purposeful professional development system that is shared across the OAC.”
Each district in the OAC designated a teacher or administrator as its “collaborative learning practitioner” (CLP) to coordinate professional learning offerings, which are helping teachers implement the State’s college- and career-readiness standards. Barker is the CLP for her district, and in that role she meets regularly with CLPs from other districts to share insights and expertise. She receives training from Battelle for Kids in areas such as teaching for college readiness and using data to inform instruction, coaches teachers and school leaders on how to manage change, and coordinates professional learning opportunities for Crooksville teachers.
She said she benefited personally from the Battelle training. “I’ve been curriculum director for 15 years, I have two master’s degrees, and I’ve been to a zillion conferences and workshops, but this, by far, has been the best professional experience I’ve ever had,” Barker said. “I’ve grown more, learned more, established relationships that will last a lifetime, and feel empowered because I know that if I don’t know the answer, someone in my collaborative is going to know it and I can depend on it.”
Reducing Teacher Isolation
Suellen Coleman, a high school special education teacher who was appointed as the CLP for the 650-student Wolf Creek Local School District, said she served as a “non-threatening resource” for teachers incorporating the State’s college- and career-ready standards into their instruction. She also helped teachers adapt to the State’s new approach to performance evaluations. Beginning in school year (SY) 2013–2014 these evaluations were partly based on students’ academic growth. She helped teachers learn to meet different students’ needs based on the outcomes from formative assessments.
“The focus was on driving instructional change based on where students are,” she said, “so that they’re not just teaching to the middle of a group of students but, instead, to everyone.”
As in the other small OAC districts, Wolf Creek has only a single teacher for most grades and subjects, which leaves many teachers feeling isolated. The OAC, however, organized meetings at which,
for example, “all of the high school social studies teachers could get together to talk about the standards and they could collaborate from there,” said Coleman, who is now principal of Waterford High School.
Kirsten Goeller, the only Spanish teacher at Waterford High School, said, “You’re kind of trying to do it on your own and that can be very difficult.”
At the OAC-sponsored meetings she met language teachers across the region and stayed in touch through email, video conferences, and an online platform for teachers created by the collaborative. She now exchanges emails with two retired Spanish teachers in the area she met through OAC, one of whom taught for 35 years. They have helped her both design an end-of-year test and decide on how much class time to devote to particular topics. “It really helps me to know that I am on the right path, and, working together, we can figure out what are the best ways to help our students master what they need to learn,” she said.
More Opportunities to Take Advanced Classes
The OAC also is giving high school students, who may live 20 miles from the nearest grocery store and lack cellular telephone service, more opportunities to take more rigorous coursework such as Advanced Placement classes and earn college credit through dual enrollment arrangements with community colleges. The State requires high school teachers to have master’s degrees to teach college-level courses. Districts identify promising young teachers, encourage them to enroll and pay for their tuition using grant funds. Some of the OAC districts also received Federal Incentive Grants, allowing them to provide incentives, such as higher pay and leadership opportunities, to keep teachers from leaving for larger districts.
In this way, the OAC has helped more than 60 of the region’s high school teachers earn advanced degrees in their subject areas and the number of college-level classes in the region rose from 41 to 142 between SY 2012-2013 and SY 2013-2014. The OAC will help 110 teachers become credentialed to teach dual enrollment courses.
That groundwork helped win the OAC a $15 million State grant to expand those efforts. It will be used to prepare more teachers, create a common curriculum for the college-level classes, build an online portal, develop four model pathways, increase dual enrollment opportunities for students, and reduce or eliminate tuition for students taking the classes. “That changes the game for opportunity for kids in rural areas,” Mitchell said. “Individual rural districts could not have put that together.”
OAC Districts Out in Front
Kathy Nolan, a consultant with the Ohio Department of Education, works with 10 of the OAC districts on school improvement. She also works with non-OAC districts in the southeast region and says she can tell the difference: the OAC districts are progressing more quickly than the others in analyzing the State’s new academic standards, setting learning goals for individual students, and using data to inform instruction. The OAC districts are “very much ahead of the game as far as understanding the need for teacher-based turnaround teams, shared leadership, and shared responsibility, not just a top-down approach,” she said.
As one measure of the OAC’s success, two dozen other school districts in the region have asked to join the 21 original districts for SY 2015-2016. Those applications are being evaluated based on 10 criteria, including commitment to blended learning, career pathways, and dual enrollment. Ivan Wilson, who coordinates Ohio’s Race to the Top programs for the Southeast Region, said the OAC districts “have learned to join forces to generate their own resources.”
“They are learning from one another,” he said. “They build upon each other.”
- Focus on professional learning. “That’s where the rubber meets the road. Without an intentional and purposeful focus on student work, you’re not going to develop the capacity of your staff to take on what you want them to take on,” said Mitchell.
- Focus on the mission. Although money is important, establishing a reason to collaborate must come first.
- Collaboration among rural districts benefits students and teachers. Teachers now learn from peers in other districts and turn to one another for help. Students are able to take classes virtually not offered in their own school.
- Size matters. Alone, each of the OAC districts is too small to attract large grants to pay for innovation and improvement. Collectively, however, economies of scale can be achieved.