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What school districts can learn

Inter-District Learning: Vital Lessons for School Districts

Despite the many political promises made during last fall’s presidential campaign, struggling rural and urban communities face an uphill economic battle.

In places where declining industries, such as coal, once fueled prosperity and comfort, residents are struggling—and many have already left. The exodus has left schools fighting for students, for funding, and for new ideas.

A recent Richmond Times-Dispatch article outlines just how dire the situation is for school districts in Virginia’s southwestern coal region:

“One after another, districts have consolidated schools, sending students home on hour-long bus rides…. Retiring teachers, counselors, librarians and aides have not been replaced, and neither have decade-old textbooks. Every cut made by Southwest Virginia school districts picks the budget closer to the bone. Everything is on the table.”

School funding cycles are vicious and unpredictable. When state funds tied to enrollment, for example, dry up, schools invariably have fewer resources to put toward innovation. That reality prompts some families to choose out in favor of education options in neighboring communities, making an already tough situation even tougher for schools.

So how can struggling  school districts stay afloat amid a flood of economic and social hardship?

Rural and urban school districts operate under vastly different circumstances. But they share many of the same problems: faltering industries, the loss of students to suburban schools, dissipating resources and local support.

Are you a leader in a school district that faces significant financial or socioeconomic hardship? Here’s three examples of school systems that thought outside the box to stay vital in times of struggle.

1. Involve your community in school closure decisions

Despite your best efforts, budget cuts sometimes demand school consolidation.

In 2010, Kansas City (Mo.) Public Schools faced a $50 million deficit and a nearly 75 percent drop in enrollment from the 1960s. Superintendent R. Stephen Green had to make tough decisions, but he knew he couldn’t do it alone.

Green and his team took a hard look at each of the district’s school buildings, how many students attended at each, and their overall condition. The team then shared their findings with the school community and kicked off a discussion about potential school closures.

By the end of the year, nearly half of the district’s schools were closed. And though not every parent or teacher was happy, they also weren’t surprised.

Kansas City’s schools are now stable, and they’re actually beginning to grow again. Green says the change is due, in part, to the tough choices educators made in consultation with the community.

2. Offer community benefits beyond academics

In shrinking communities, where essential services are often harder to come by, schools double as a hub of support.

This summer, the City of Philadelphia launched a five-year plan to create 25 “community schools” in neighborhoods across the city.

As Mayor Jim Kenney told the Philadelphia Public School Notebook: “It’s about listening to the school community and bringing targeted resources directly into schools, making them thriving neighborhood hubs that support everyone in the community.”

Community schools will offer students and their families vital services, such as health care and adult education. The aim is to help students in poverty by offering services that lessen the effects of economic hardship on families.

Your community may not have the resources to transform every school into a community school. But, by giving families spaces to meet, or putting them in contact with health and education experts, your schools can become vital hubs for your local community.

3. Find the right partners

The right partnerships can help fill critical resource gaps.

For example, the Des Moines (Iowa) Public Schools Central Campus partners with more than 300 businesses to bring hands-on technical training to Des Moines students. From aviation mechanics to wind turbine construction to culinary training, the school commits to providing students with real-world, even on-the-job experience before they graduate high school.

School-business partnerships don’t simply benefit students. As Assistant Director of Central Campus Aiddy Kott Phomvisay told reporters, “It’s a win-win for business, for Iowa and for students.”

What do you think of these lessons? Are you applying any of them in your districts? Tell us in the comments.