You are currently viewing Past and future teachers ensure student success in rural Appalachia

Past and future teachers ensure student success in rural Appalachia

The Importance of Community Schools in Appalachia Today

Schools are often the heart of a community, and in rural Appalachia, community schools are a center of gravity where local and regional partnerships coalesce to improve outcomes and strengthen local communities. Community schools in three Kentucky counties opened the doors to high school students to mentor young students on the path to post-secondary education, to retired teachers to support schools and their own financial well-being, and to members family to engage in enriched learning opportunities.

A decade ago, “full-service community schools” began to flourish in Kentucky due to existing funding for family resources and youth service centers, and they grew stronger when funding from the U.S. Department of Education has been expanded. Partners for Rural Impact (formerly Education Partners) increased funding for community schools by bringing together partners and districts to apply for funding, as well as by combining programs that improve educational outcomes and build on the strengths of local communities for long-term results.

Funding partnerships work in rural Appalachia

Partners for Rural Impact has worked for more than 20 years to demystify how rural districts can get funding for the programs young people need, and it’s all happened through strong partnerships. The organization provides public funds through discretionary grants to provide what is most relevant to local students and families. Federal funding for community schools has been particularly effective in developing programs that will lead to better academic outcomes and post-secondary success.

Specifically, Partners for Rural Impact has collaboratively provided an anticipated $7.5 million in grants to full-service community schools awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to Knox County in 2014, Berea in Madison County in 2018, and Leslie County in 2020 (listed under Berea College). At present, there are 50 schools under the designation of community schools in southeastern Kentucky. Partners for Rural Impact also works with partners such as Save the Children, Strive Together, Advance Kentucky, Operation Unite, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation to successfully link programs to the efforts of these community schools.

With a little creativity, community school strategies work well in different places, depending on the needs and strengths of the people who live there.

Dreama Gentry, executive director of Partners for Rural Impact, describes how funding partnerships work in rural Appalachia: “Rural districts don’t always have the staff capacity to adequately identify and apply for federal grants. Partners for Rural Impact serves as the trusted backbone for multiple school districts to partner with us to design the program and develop funding applications. Then the money comes through us and flows to the school districts. We have flexible templates for employee contracts based on individual school districts. The result is the samea local person becomes the site coordinator, and this local person is part of our team. We train them and provide monitoring and supervision.

Rural school districts develop trusting relationships that lead to ongoing collaboration by jointly applying for community school grants, neighborhood Promise funding, and other federal resources. District-level collaboration also leads to collaboration between individuals, such as teachers who interact across county boundaries to collaborate, such as sharing arts education resources.

college prep pathways help local residents become educators and paraprofessionals

Partners for Rural Impact and others are particularly focused on preparing young people for success in life with a “cradle to career” vision by investing in systems, opportunities and supports that make post-secondary degrees attainable – overlaying schools and community programs in several southeastern Kentucky counties.

For example, a program called Gaining Early Awareness & Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (STANDING EQUIPMENT) was funded by the federal government in 1999 to increase high school graduation rates and propel young people into college. GEAR UP emphasizes college readiness through academic achievement and building a “college culture” for a cohort of sixth-grade students through their freshman year in college with services such as in-school tutoring, career exploration, test prep, college and career site visits, educator professional development, and more.

By combining GEAR UP with AmeriCorps, community schools and other programs, significant results have been achieved over a period of years. For example, Partners for Rural Impact reported at the October 2019 Pathways to Adult Success conference that high school graduation rates increased in schools with GEAR UP from 74% in 2012 to 94% in 2017. Equally impressive, graduation rates have remained above 90% through 2021 despite the effects of the pandemic.

AmeriCorps offers retired teachers a way to sponsor students and local residents to become teachers

The AmeriCorps program run by Partners for Rural Impact engages local residents to support the same vision and ensure that meeting youth needs leads to student success. AmeriCorps has also become a pipeline of educators for local residents who serve as mentors and tutors, and are then prioritized to become site coordinators and project directors.

AmeriCorps offices throughout rural Kentucky hire entry-level residents but aim to build their skills so they can work their way up to coordinating and directing programs in educational settings. Such was the case for Melissa Napier, who now leads the Leslie County school system’s volunteer services. As a single mother with three children, she experienced the education career pipeline herself while working as a teaching assistant at a local elementary school.

For Napier, recruiting and training local residents to mentor students in schools gives them access to jobs that are available in their own communities: “We are a very, very small county. We don’t have much here. Our biggest employers in this field are education and nursing. Since coming aboard three years ago, she has seen four AmeriCorps members get different jobs in the district, and this year two are working to become teachers. She also regularly recruits retired teachers into AmeriCorps, whose experience is an added benefit for students and provides additional income for local residents age 55 and older.

Napier says, “When working with students, being local helps you know why they’re struggling, whether it’s struggles at home or a learning disability. Our main focus right now is to improve math achievement in the region. So I try to recruit members who have a strong math background or recruit them based on other strengths. And kids quickly learn who to ask for help based on each volunteer’s strengths.

When major challenges arise, local people know how to move from problems to solutions. For example, a major flood hit an area in Kentucky, causing schools to close and preventing residents from accessing basic resources like food. Local residents who were part of AmeriCorps knew the local landscape well, so they knew they could get into canoes and safely bring food and homework to parts of the county that had been cut off. “They had to know the community to know it was necessary. This is their people and their place,” Gentry explained.

Area art and culture provide opportunities for enriched learning and family engagement

Appalachian community schools are uniquely positioned to provide enriched learning experiences that draw on the region’s art and culture. When children and families can participate in culturally relevant art experiences, a new bridge is built between home, community and school.

For example, some communities have created “storytelling trails”. A community school will partner with a local institution like a public library to set up a semi-permanent installation of pages from a children’s book placed in weatherproof displays along a pathway. When a new book is added to the trail, there is often a community event that offers people who live far away an opportunity to come together. These trails are a way for community members to work together to improve reading scores that have fallen during the pandemic, as well as a way to introduce diversity and equity topics that are relevant to people in the area. A mum from Berea shared, “Quick questions and activities help me as a parent. I think a lot of us need help figuring out how to engage with our kids in different ways.

After-school programs are also essential components of community schools where the school and local partners can enrich and extend in-person learning time. “Post-COVID, kids are enrolling more than ever, especially middle schoolers,” said Beth Dotson Brown, project director for the Berea Full-Service Community School Project. “Afterschool does a lot to encourage children to pursue different careers while developing academic skills, taking care of social-emotional needs, and interacting with peers and caring adults. There is so much desire to be back together in person.

Whether rural or urban, each location has both strengths and needs that shape its education system.

There may be gaps in educational programs and supports for students and schools in rural areas, but this is by no means an insurmountable challenge. Gentry says: “Over the years we have realized that there needs to be an alignment of systems and supports, and we need to change policy to ensure there are better investments in rural areas.

Lessons from Appalachian community schools may be broadly relevant to other rural areas, but it’s also important to understand the diversity between counties. With a little creativity, community school strategies work well in different places, depending on the needs and strengths of the people who live there. The bones are similar from school to school, but the aspects will always differ depending on what works best for the local community.

Leave a Reply