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Rural Illinois School District Successes Provide Strategies Nationwide
Illinois Ag Connection - 06/14/2018

Faced with major challenges -- often including poverty, access to key resources and difficulty hiring and retaining quality teachers -- rural schools face a steep climb in their quest for school improvement. But the findings of a new report from Illinois Center for School Improvement at the American Institutes for Research (Illinois CSI at AIR) suggest that rural schools are applying creative tactics and making progress.

"School Improvement in Rural Communities: An Intentional Approach to Systemic Support" details how Illinois CSI at AIR uses its data-driven and distinctively hands-on, collaborative and customized approach to help underperforming rural schools transform their systems and ultimately drive higher student achievement by focusing on:

- supporting district and school leaders,

- improving recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers,

- fostering online learning and dual enrollment, and

- improving perceptions of and preparations for college and postsecondary education.

"School districts have had significant success partnering with Illinois CSI at AIR, suggesting that these are strategies that rural schools nationwide can use to ensure improvement leading to student success," said Betheny Lyke, Ed.D., executive director for Illinois CSI at AIR. "While school improvement is complicated, experience and research have helped us tailor services to strengthen rural schools' continuous improvement efforts while helping them make the most of local resources."

In Illinois, one in five schools are considered rural. More than a third of Illinois rural students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Rural schools are often isolated geographically, limiting administrator and teacher learning opportunities and collaboration with peers. State funding historically has been tied to the number of students in a district, leaving rural schools with fewer resources.

The report explains how Illinois CSI at AIR works with rural schools by focusing on four areas of impact.

Due to the lack of resources, rural superintendents and principals often must serve multiple roles, meaning they have more duties and less support. Illinois CSI at AIR supports school leaders by providing on-site and virtual coaching. They also are invited to participate in the District Leadership Team Learning Network to collectively advance the improvement process and as well as the Principals Institute, a series of professional development sessions that help them develop and enhance their leadership capacity and focus their improvement efforts in a peer-supported environment.

For example, Illinois CSI at AIR provided coaching support to leaders at Venice Community Unit School District in Venice (where 90 percent of students are from low-income homes), helping the small district work toward large-scale transformation, including implementation of a math curriculum that led to a 9.6 percent average gain in math scores in one year among grade schoolers, based on the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) Rasch Unit Scale (RIT).

Recruiting and retaining good teachers is a challenge for rural schools. Due to lower pay and limited access to professional development resources, rural teachers often are less experienced. Further, because of budget constraints, teachers -- like administrators -- often must perform multiple roles. Illinois CSI at AIR works with rural districts to support teachers and encourage growth and interaction by pooling resources with neighboring schools, providing virtual coaching and instructional support specialists and nurturing cross-disciplinary learning communities within a school -- which foster an environment that helps attract and retain high-quality teachers.

Illinois CSI at AIR provides professional development and technical assistance to rural teachers to enhance their mathematics and English language arts (ELA) instruction. It has been working with Roxana School District 1, East St. Louis School District 189 and other districts to support student learning and achievement in mathematics, science and ELA by emphasizing the overlaps between all of these practices and facilitating cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Rural schools typically cannot offer the range of classroom-based courses that larger school districts can. Illinois CSI at AIR helps rural districts assess alternative options such as virtual courses, correspondence courses and dual-credit courses through the local community college, allowing students to take more challenging classes while also earning college credit.

Westville District 2 sends juniors and seniors to Danville Area Community College for instruction in 15 career programs, and students receive both high school and college credit. Illinois CSI at AIR is supporting the district and school leadership teams at Westville and other districts to collect data and identify students on track for graduation and support them as they work toward taking the SAT.

Fewer than a third of rural Illinois high school graduates enroll in postsecondary education (including college, vocational or trade school) compared with more than 42 percent of city and 48 percent of suburban students. Yet the ongoing Rural High School Aspirations Study found 89 percent of rural youths are looking for ways to extend their educational opportunities beyond high school. Illinois CSI at AIR is helping rural schools connect the dots to better engage students and encourage them to pursue post-secondary opportunities.

Working with Illinois CSI at AIR, Scott-Morgan Community Unit School District 2 in Bluffs is implementing a continuous improvement plan focused on student engagement, helping students envision a bright future. Teachers work with students to discuss their assessment data and set specific learning goals, and use virtual reality technology to let students explore worlds beyond their school, getting them excited about and prepared for post-high school educational opportunities.

Illinois CSI at AIR is an organization created by the Illinois State Board of Education and AIR, one of the world's largest behavioral and social science research and evaluation organizations specializing in district and school improvement. Illinois CSI at AIR guides district leaders through building effective leadership teams that make data-driven decisions to implement research-based best practices, with monitoring and feedback loops for continuous improvement. Districts and school leaders agree that they are making system-wide improvements that will lead to transformation.

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