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Finding Innovations in Rural School Districts; 3 “Es” the ESA Can Do

Editor’s Note: This Perspectives article is part of a series dedicated to rural schools. Please also read the related research article Getting Better Together: Innovations for Rural Learners and Communities,

By Thomas A. Butler, Ph.D., Executive Director, Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8, Altoona, PA

“If it wasn’t for the Intermediate Unit, our school district would not be able to stay open.”

–  Superintendent of a small, rural school district in Pennsylvania

The quote that starts this blog post was spoken to me on my first day as Executive Director of Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8.  No pressure or anything!  I serve as executive director of an ESA that services 35 rural school districts covering 3,500 square miles in central/southwest Pennsylvania.  Many of the school districts that we serve are very small.  Eighteen of the school districts have less than 1,200 students.

As I visited every school superintendent in my first month on the job, ten of them said something similar to the superintendent that I quoted above.  As someone new to the ESA world, these comments instilled in me a deep responsibility to these school districts.  More than just a responsibility to a “school district,” I felt a responsibility to the people that served in those schools and lived in the communities. After all, I had been a superintendent in two districts prior to taking the IU8 executive director’s position. I could relate well to their statements.

Our intermediate unit has a strong history of responsiveness to the needs of the school districts.  The programs and services created have been a help to the school districts, but we always need to evolve.  As society moves from an industrial age to a post-industrial age, the pressures small, rural school districts face have compounded.  The accountability system instituted by NCLB (particularly propagated by Race to the Top) and greatly continued in the new ESSA law have placed enormous pressures on schools.  The response by ESA’s to the current moment in education requires more than delivering programs and assuring their implementation with “fidelity.”

Gone are the days of making a program “fit” into a school district.  In the past, programs created for larger, urban school systems often were imposed on rural schools without much thought about the local context.  In many rural places the reality of program “fidelity” simply meant not reporting the adjustments necessary to accommodate the actual context of the school and the community.

As we near the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, ESA’s must consider new ways to assist small, rural schools.  Instead of researching the best program that has been field tested in some far away locale, ESA’s can help school districts discover the innovations within their own systems.  There are 3 ways ESA’s can accomplish this goal.

  1. Engage

See with your own eyes and hear with your own ears what is happening in the school district. If the ESA executive director is unable to connect with the leadership team of the school district, select high-level personnel to go to the school district multiple times and visit multiple locations (school and community) to learn more about the district.

A good question to start the conversation with school district personnel is “What are your hopes and dreams for your school in the next school year?” You can also use 3 months, 6 months, 12 months as the time span. The time span is not as important as the question itself.  Using the answer as the context, you can now learn about the district through the lens of their hopes and dreams.  As you conduct your interviews and observations, look for the unique adjustments in programs, policies and procedures the school district has made to account for their unique circumstances.  These are the areas where the ESA can leverage its expertise to assist the school district.

  1. Empower

Empowerment is more than a word thrown into a strategic plan to fulfill a quota of buzz words.  We are transitioning to an age of empowerment in society and education (for more on this topic please visit  Empowering individuals is becoming part of the DNA of our society.  You can see it in the customization that occurs when you visit Amazon, Apple, Facebook, or your local convenience store.  All of these companies are putting practices into place that allow customers to purchase or create experiences to meet their specific needs.  If someone can feel empowered as they order a custom coffee at a convenience store, why shouldn’t the adults and students be empowered in our school system?  The best ideas for helping education exist within the school system itself…not from the outside.

Small, rural school districts are often understaffed. This usually leads to everyone within the system being overwhelmed by the managerial tasks necessary to keep a school operating. Here lies an opportunity for ESAs.  Oftentimes, school leadership has a difficult time giving themselves permission (more information at to take time to think about innovation.  ESA leadership can come forward and facilitate that conversation. How?

  • Operate a book study for school leaders where they meet face-to-face and have a chance to learn from each other.
  • Start a “rock star teacher” group and ask superintendents to have their best come together with other great teachers under your tutelage to discuss the innovations they are doing in their classrooms.
  • Facilitate a special leadership forum (like in the article) that enables district leadership to talk and share their innovations.

Through these experiences, the ESA will learn about grass roots innovations occurring within the school districts.  Once you learn of these innovations, bring your valuable skills, knowledge and connections in play to assist the school in embedding their innovations deeper into the school, and or scale them to other schools in the ESA region.

  1. Enthuse

In some ways, the most important function an ESA can do to help small, rural districts in their innovation journey is to champion their efforts.  This is in the wheelhouse of all ESAs across the country.  ESAs have always placed their school districts’ accomplishments above their own and stood in the background to allow the school districts to get the accolades. The journey that you are guiding school districts through to discover their own innovations makes championing that much more important.

School districts do not think that the adjustments they have made to programs to make them viable in their districts are innovative.  They do not think that the programs they create are innovative because they look at it as “that’s just what we do” without thinking of the bigger picture of the impact beyond their school district.  ESAs can help bridge the local grass roots innovation and help scale it. The ESA can help lead the enthusiasm for the innovations in two ways.

  • Let the school district know that what they are doing is outstanding and could help other school districts similar to them as well.
  • Bring resources to the situation that will broadcast the ideas to specific audiences: the home community, other districts within your ESA area, and the greater education field. By doing this, you encourage all school districts to look within themselves to find their own innovations.

The importance of ESA’s in helping rural, small districts develop grass roots innovation is great.  An ESA holds the human and social capital to facilitate meaningful conversations with school districts about their goals for innovation. Oftentimes helping school districts recognize that they have an innovative program already created is a great first step.  A great way an ESA can recognize innovations occurring in the local school districts is by implementing the E’s.

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