Executive Perspective

Attending to the Needs of Rural Leaders
By Daniel A. Domenech/School Administrator, October 2018

RURAL SCHOOL superintendents make up about one-third of AASA’s membership. We have a long history of advocating for the needs of our rural school districts.

AASA played a role in the creation of the Rural Education Achievement Program, or REAP, codified in both No Child Left Behind and reauthorized in the Every Student Succeeds Act. It is a program designed to assist rural school districts in using federal resources more effectively. We continue to ensure that annual appropriations are available for REAP.

The National Center for Education Statistics has definitions for three categories of rural schools that depend on the distance from an urban center. Generally, these school systems are small in population and isolated.

Distinct Circumstances
In the past year, AASA has taken steps to increase its focus on the unique needs and opportunities facing rural superintendents and the school systems they lead. In fall 2017, AASA entered into a partnership with the Rural School and Community Trust. We jointly published a report, “Leveling the Playing Field for Rural Students,” that focused on the limited access to advanced coursework, medical care, food and employment opportunities for rural students. Robert Mahaffey, the group’s executive director for the Trust, joined AASA’s staff and is now working closely with AASA’s Advocacy team.

At the AASA Governing Board meeting this summer, our rural members addressed their professional development needs. AASA already offers an impressive array of programs, such as the National Superintendent Certification Program, aspiring leader programs and leadership development courses, yet we know it is difficult for our rural leaders to take advantage of them.

Geographic isolation and distance create a hardship for both current and aspiring superintendents to travel. Given a limited budget, cost is a factor. To that end, AASA has committed to developing programs for rural administrators that employ a blended learning approach and can be offered at a price point or tuition level the district or the administrator can afford.

Our Governing Board members also indicated that the rural program must consider the unique circumstances, opportunities and obstacles involved in administering a rural school system.

The rural leader must be a generalist. Often the superintendent is the central-office staff. Curriculum, business and maintenance functions typically are part of the superintendent’s responsibilities. Dual roles, such as being the high school principal, are common. There are rural superintendents who drive the school bus. Teaching a course at the high school may be a necessity and not just something the superintendent does to maintain awareness of the teaching and learning process. Being the superintendent for more than one district is also a reality in rural America.

Vital Networking
Just as digital learning is now commonplace in most of America’s classrooms, personal technology is playing a greater role in the professional development of our system leaders. Synchronous and asynchronous programs now allow participants to access videos and materials pertinent to their coursework online, while also being able to interact live with their teachers and fellow program participants. This technology-enabled live interaction also allows long-distance coaching and mentoring to take place.

We have learned from the programs that we currently offer that networking among the participants is a critical component of the program. Establish a learning community that includes critical friendships is a favorite experience according to many of our program graduates. Cohort reunions at our National Conference on Education are now being organized on a regular basis. We will look to incorporate into the rural program the opportunity for participants to meet face to face at the initiation and graduation from the course to facilitate networking and bonding.

The networking is so vital to our participants that, after completing the program, many join the interest area cohorts that AASA now offers. Personalized Learning, Digital Learning, Early Childhood, Redefining Ready! and the Large County Consortium are among the most popular. Soon we hope to add a Rural Education Consortium.

AASA’s Executive Committee recently met with the members of the Rural School and Community Trust board. They also have been discussing the professional development needs of rural administrators and were delighted to hear of our plans. Together, we will work to analyze the needs and skills our rural leaders must acquire to best serve the needs of their students, develop the appropriate curriculum and determine the best method of delivery at an affordable cost.

AASA and Rural Trust will continue to advocate on behalf of rural America and provide professional development to benefit our rural school leaders.

is AASA executive director. Twitter: @AASADan