Essential Factors for the Success of Rural Education Collaboratives

This blog is the second in a series on strategies and resources to help rural educators implement critical improvement initiatives. This blog series will share and build on lessons and best practices that are working in rural districts. An introductory blog post outlining the series is available here.

Rural education collaboratives can be organized and managed in different ways, depending on the local context. For example, the Colorado Rural Education Collaborative is organized by districts, whereas the North Dakota Small Organized Schools collaborative is organized by individual member schools. Collaboratives can also differ in their focus of their work based on local needs and challenges. For example, the Southern Wisconsin Rural Schools Collaborative has focused on school nutrition, while the North State Together collaborative in California has focused on teacher recruitment and preparation.

Regardless of the design or focus of the collaborative, most successful rural education collaboratives share key approaches to their work. When leaders of rural education collaboratives use the following practices, they know they have a good foundation for their work.

Common Success Factors for Rural Education Collaboratives

  1. Strong relationships and norms. Establishing personal relationships and trust allows members to work well together and establish norms. Strong relationships are vital to making a collaboration work, especially in the beginning.
  2. Accountable coordination. A person or organization in charge of coordinating the collaborative helps keep it focused and moving forward.
  3. Efficient communications. When geographic distances are a challenge, using technology to communicate reduces the sense of isolation among members.
  4. Strategic planning. A clear strategic design and work plan is important to ensure shared vision and actionable steps to reach it. Active learning through cycles of shared work and feedback loops supports implementing a strategic plan.
  5. Ownership. Creating a sense of ownership for the collaborative’s outcomes is important. Enlisting a representative group of network members to lead activities and make decisions can increase ownership for the work over time.
  6. Coalitions. Engaging champions at all levels — local, regional, state, and legislative – can strengthen coalitions driving the work.

There are many different ways that collaboratives can put these success factors into action. For example, the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative uses a “pod” approach to focus coordination and communication among geographically contiguous districts in addition to periodic collaborative-wide coordination. The Ohio Appalachian Collaborative has also established a theory of action to guide their work and support long-term strategic planning. Another example of success in action comes from the North State Together collaborative, which uses a coalition of local champions involved in other initiatives, local universities and businesses, faith-based organizations, and other key leaders to strengthen their shared success and promote ownership across their work.

State support is also a common success factor for rural collaboratives but it can look different depending on the state context and approach. State educational agencies can support and remove barriers in a variety of ways, including the following:

  • Incentivizing the use of rural collaboratives in the pursuit of competitive grants. For example, Louisiana created guidelines for rural collaboratives to be able to compete for innovation and improvement funding.
  • Creating a statewide advisory rural education body. This type of organization could highlight the value and creation of collaboratives as well as help districts have a stronger say in educational innovation and improvement state policy. For example, Colorado’s Rural Education Council acts as an advisor to the state chief on barriers and opportunities for helping rural schools.
  • Allowing rural collaboratives to lead local planning. This approach includes conducting needs assessments and root cause analyses and identifying evidence-based practices.

Interested in learning more?

The next blog posts in this series will explore specific examples of how rural collaboratives can support local priorities and initiatives; specifically, personalized learning for students and (in the last post of this series) personalized professional development for educators.

Click here for the next post in the series, “Rural Education Collaboratives for Personalized Learning.”