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Harnessing Rural Strengths for Schoolwide Transformation

The self-proclaimed City Girl has always preferred to live and work in areas filled with people.  My first teaching job was on a team in an elementary school that had eight sections of first grade, each with 26 or more students. Yes, we were big.  And I liked it that way. 

My first assignment with SWIFT was Local Education Agency (LEA) Facilitator in Oregon.  In this role, I had the opportunity to facilitate the implementation of SWIFT in one of the center’s largest urban districts (Portland) and three rural districts (Pendleton, Redmond, and Sisters).  I was thrilled with my new position, but was haunted by the thought of facilitating SWIFT in three RURAL districts.  This was new territory for me and I wondered what all city dwellers wonder: How do rural schools face the same complex challenges as urban schools and solve them with so few resources? 

What I learned is that “small town charm” isn’t just a cute saying; it is the foundation of rural livelihood.  Small town folks do whatever they have to do to ensure the families in their community, some of whom they have known for generations, have what they need to succeed.  And they are extremely creative in the process. Principals sometime serve as bus drivers.  School buses sometimes double as community mobile hot spots.  Gymnasiums are sometimes the primary community gathering place. 

The most important lesson I learned is that rural schools really aren’t too different from urban schools.  They want facilitators to spend time discovering the unique strengths of their context and then harness those strengths to help them improve their educational practice. The beauty of SWIFT implementation is that it is designed to honor the unique characteristics of every context – large or small.   I encourage you, schools and districts in even the most rural settings, to consider how the SWIFT transformation practices can be modified to honor the values, traditions, and charms of YOUR setting.  Here are some examples to get you started:  

  • Transformation Teaming – It is likely you have a small staff.  Create a leadership team that reflects your staff, even if it only has a few members.  For example, a single-school district might choose to combine district and school leadership to create one cohesive leadership team.  SWIFT has a set of Transformation Teaming tools to help you define your team’s purpose, ensure strong communication structures, and record your efforts. 
  • Visioning – This practice is just as critical in your smaller school setting.  Many rural school districts report the importance of involving the community at large in determining a future vision. Involving community members builds unity and can uncover untapped resources. 
  • Data Snapshots – Data-based decision-making is important in every school, no matter the size.  SWIFT district and school Data Snapshots may need to be modified or combined to fit your smaller setting.  If you have a single-school district and only one leadership team, use the school Data Snapshot and consider how district level resources and personnel can support efforts at the school level. 
  • Priority & Practice Planning – We recommend schools and districts focus their attention on two or three priority areas.  However, just one priority area at a time might be appropriate for your rural setting.  The goal is to commit to realistic priorities and set reasonable action steps to ensure progress. 
  • Resource Mapping and Matching – Resources are often thin in rural settings.  However, rural communities have a unique way of pulling together and getting creative to ensure their kids have what they need.  SWIFT Resource Inventory Form will help you think about all of the current facility and personnel resources you have and how they can be reallocated to match your future vision.  Think outside the box.  Are there community members who can help fill a need?  Can older students support younger students? 
  • Coaching & Facilitation – Small staffs can make forming an ongoing coaching plan especially challenging.  Ask yourself, are there other rural districts in your area that would be interested in partnering to allow your teachers to discuss their practice or create a professional book club?  If meeting in person is not possible, perhaps staff members can connect virtually, over the phone, or via social media.  

-Jessica Meisenheimer

Jessica Meisenheimer, Ph.D. has worn many hats in her years as an educator … teaching first grade students to graduate students … working in urban to suburban settings … instructing as a general and special educator. Jessica’s current work as a Research Project Coordinator for the Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation (SWIFT) Center applies her knowledge and experience for the benefit of diverse students across the U.S. She is passionate about finding ways to better serve all students by implementing inclusive school reform, examining educational policy, and utilizing multi-tiered systems of support.