July 24, 2023
By Gary Funk, consultant to The GRAD Partnership, former Director of Rural Schools Collaborative
Rural youth collectively make up about 20 percent of public-school students in the United States; they must be included in any national effort to increase graduation rates. In light of this, the Rural Schools Collaborative (RSC) is working with The GRAD Partnership, a national movement partnering with communities to use high-quality student success systems so that schools are empowered to graduate all students ready for the future. As part of this work, RSC is developing regional intermediaries that establish and support cohorts of underserved rural schools in their work to implement student success systems.
The coordinated drive to boost graduation rates, led by nine organizations that form The GRAD Partnership, is critical. The final report to the nation on a 20-year effort to boost high school graduation rates showed that graduation rates rose from 71 percent in 2001 to 86.5 percent by 2020. This translated into approximately 5 million more students graduating, rather than dropping out, during that period. Although this report is very encouraging, the nation still fell short of the 90% goal set in 2010 by the Obama administration’s GradNation Campaign.
However, there is more to the intentional rural engagement than simply increasing graduation rates, as important as that is. In addition to providing rural schools with technical and collaborative support to expand next generation student success systems, The GRAD Partnership’s rural outreach supports three things of real significance to rural communities:
- School connectedness,
- School community building, and
- An opportunity to reshape the rural narrative.
Rural issues rarely drive national policy discussions; in fact, they are often relegated to the sidelines. This may be explained, in part, by the structural complexities of scaling national initiatives to widely dispersed rural regions. For instance, how do you roll out multi-million dollar projects into sparsely populated areas dotted with often disparate small towns and small schools? It is somewhat akin to landing a 747 at a county airport, and this messy challenge has contributed to the all-too-common practice of brushing aside places that are remote, inconvenient, and off the national radar. Whatever the reasons, intentional or not, the ongoing disconnectedness between the highly resourced American technocracy and rural areas has not served us well.
While The GRAD Partnership’s rural engagement is still in its early stages, we already see tangible benefits of purposefully connecting previously overlooked school communities to the established and highly visible national organizations that comprise the partnership:
“The GRAD Partnership has increased our dialogue with area schools, which we suspect will lead to more collaborations. The University of West Alabama has been proud to be part of a national effort with such well known partners. This has helped us establish bonds both internally and externally.”Annah Rogers, Black Belt region facilitator from The University of West Alabama
“These are connections that weren’t there before. For us, there is simply more synergy”Susan Schroth, Northern California region facilitator with North State Together
The value of authentically connecting rural regions to national programs cannot be overstated. As the United States continues to slide down the slippery slope of hyper polarization, it is imperative that we continue to develop intentional efforts to connect folks from diverse rural regions to major national initiatives.
Building School Communities
In addition to bringing folks together, The GRAD Partnership provides an excellent platform for intermediaries and their school partners to strengthen their respective rural school communities. A blogpost is not the place for a Deweyesque dissertation on the importance of school to community, but it is no secret that many rural legislators , unwittingly or not, help enact legislation that is detrimental to public schools. This ongoing erosion of public education, both in practice and in credibility, is particularly harmful to many small towns and rural places where, quite often, school districts are the economic and social hubs of communities.
Student success systems reinforce the value of public education by coalescing the entire community around an effort to ensure that students graduate and are prepared for post-secondary opportunities. This serves to increase the number of stakeholders for a school district and provides relevance to places that are facing an array of economic challenges. At a time when the timeworn features of American democracy are under attack, this is of the utmost importance.
Shaping the Rural Narrative
The current urban-rural divide has deep historical roots, and rural derision is hardly unique to the Unites States. One of the most troubling aspects of the current urban-rural divide is a national rural narrative that is often demeaning and pejorative to rural communities. Furthermore, this “narrative” rarely gives voice to rural people generally, let alone those of rural teachers or students. In this age of accelerating digital information and social media, negative and misleading portrayals are exponentially more damaging than previous decades—and they are more exploitable.
The GRAD Partnership is committed to amplifying the voices of rural students, teachers, and school and community leaders who are working together to support students and build community. Furthermore, these stories are being shared across a national network of both rural and urban partners. While The GRAD Partnership is focused squarely on increasing student success, by sharing rural perspectives and advocating for the sharing of rural perspectives, a high profile and strongly funded initiative like the GRAD Partnership can encourage other powerful and connected entities to do the same.
Increasing high school graduation rates and bolstering pathways to post-secondary success are both essential to our nation’s future, and how we strive to achieve those goals in underserved rural regions matters. Empowering regional entities to do important work in rural areas requires a certain degree of trust and patience, as well as a laser-like focus on communication and genuine dialogue. Funders must also commit to providing space—space for planning, implementation, and learning and reflection. If conditions of mutual respect and shared convictions can be met, new levels of ownership can be achieved, and important bridges will be built.
The GRAD Partnership and the Rural Schools Collaborative are looking to expand their shared work with rural lead partners. Please reach out to us if you are interested in learning more about becoming an intermediary.