Tapping The Potential Of Service Agencies

New demands bring new relationships among rural school systems and intermediate districts by Hobart L. Harmon

Effective leaders of rural school districts know how to leverage limited resources that can get great results for students, faculty and the community. Meeting state and federal No Child Left Behind requirements means finding assistance that overcomes the barriers of scarce human and financial resources.

A small central-office staff, few businesses in the community, reluctant taxpayers and demands to educate all students to high standards regardless of socioeconomic conditions present unique leadership challenges. Where does a superintendent turn for dependable help?

Robert Falk, superintendent of the 768-student Otto-Eldred School District in Duke Center, Pa., taps regularly into the potential of his educational service agency in the mountainous north-central region of Pennsylvania. Like many superintendents of small, rural school districts, Falk must personally handle most of the routine, district-level functions.

"I have a principal at each school, but I don't have an assistant superintendent or curriculum and professional development specialists who can assist principals, faculty and community members in implementing new initiatives or raising the quality of existing educational programs,” Falk says.

The school district is the second poorest in the state as measured by the market value personal income aid ratio (property value and household income) used for calculating state aid to local school districts. “I greatly depend on Intermediate Unit 9 to lend the external expertise needed to assist schools with important school initiatives," he adds.

Through contractual arrangements, the intermediate unit provides and supervises all special education teachers for the district. Falk also uses the agency to coordinate several federal programs, management services (e.g., health insurance) and essential curriculum services.

Gary Snawder, superintendent of the 1,200-student Girard Unified School District 248 in Girard, Kan., faces similar challenges. His central office includes only a treasurer, a clerk and the office secretary. “I couldn’t function without the help of the Education Service Center at Greenbush,” he says. “NCLB has far more requirements than we could meet. The Greenbush Center helps our schools formulate assessments, write grants and keep abreast of the latest research — things we could not do very well without assistance.”

Teacher Searches
Finding qualified teachers under the new federal requirements can be an especially challenging task in rural districts. Heywood Cordy, superintendent in Jenkins County, Ga., relies on the Teacher Alternative Preparation program offered by the Central Savannah River Area Regional Educational Service Agency.

His district hired seven teachers who completed the RESA program in the past year. “The bottom line is without the RESA pool of teaching candidates our students would have a sub in the classroom, rather than a high-quality, full-time teacher,” Cordy says.

The Calhoun County, Fla., Public Schools use an electronic NCLB Highly Qualified Teacher e-Tool developed by the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium to address teacher quality issues. “The e-Tool enables the principals to document the highly qualified status of core academic teachers and ensures that our teachers have a quality professional development plan,” says Superintendent Mary Sue Neves.

Retaining teachers also is a critical issue for the rural leaders. Gordon Munck, superintendent of Pilot Rock School District in northeastern Oregon, treasures the Education Toolkit developed by the Umatilla-Morrow Education Service District. “It jump starts new teachers and gives them the skills needed to survive those grueling first years — and it increases our chance of keeping a successful beginning teacher in the school district.”

Each teacher in Pilot Rock has a mentor and completes a two-year program. Munck says he likes the fact “sometimes when I drop in on a new teacher I see elements of classroom design, curriculum mapping or assessment that came directly from the toolkit training.”

In Washington state’s Mary M. Knight School District, which has only 162 students in preK-12, the loss of even one beginning teacher becomes a critical setback. “With assistance of Educational Service District 113, we are participating in a research project because we want to know how to better retain our teachers,” says Carol Ersland, the superintendent. “We want to be ready when retirements require us to hire new teachers.”

Finding teachers who meet NCLB’s definition of “highly qualified” to serve growing populations of English language learners in some rural areas may require new approaches to recruitment and preparation. Education Service Center IV in Houston started a program to prepare bilingual teachers for the 54 districts in its region. The program recruits professionals in Mexico with a bachelor’s degree who want to become certified teachers in the United States.

The service agency’s initiative led to an alternative certification program that provides online training for teachers in rural areas. All prospective teachers must pass the state exam to be considered highly qualified.

Supplemental Services
How do you meet federal laws that require services for students with exceptional learning needs when financial resources and instructional specialists are unavailable? NCLB requirements raise the issue of serving special education students to almost crisis proportions in small rural school districts.

The only feasible solution in the small Dayton School District in southeast Washington is to contractually share the services of a specialist, such as speech and language pathologists, school psychologists and vision specialists, with some of the 23 other districts served by Educational Service District 123, says Rich Stewart, Dayton’s superintendent.

Without the contractual service of the intermediate unit, Stewart believes his district of about 600 students could not address the needs of a small pool of students. Hiring a specialist means “we must take the money from the basic education program. So we might meet the requirements of the special-ed law for a few students with special needs, but we also would be sacrificing some essential programs and services we need to offer non-special-ed students,” he says. “Even if funds were available, it is very unlikely that a specialist would relocate or come to a rural area to work on a two-tenths FTE basis.”

As superintendent of the 715-student Northeast Community School District in Goose Lake, Iowa, Jim Cox relies on the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency to adequately serve students with disabilities. The service agency has the capacity to hire high-caliber educators to serve on a regional basis. Cox finds the agency also does an excellent job in keeping school district personnel informed of new regulations and the latest research regarding special education services and issues.

In many rural areas, parents have little or no access to after-school expertise of supplemental service providers mandated by NCLB. In Alaska, the Southeast Regional Resource Center has become a preferred solution for parents with children in a wide swath of the state. During the last three years, the center has worked with seven districts to serve more than 250 students in some of Alaska’s most rural and remote communities.

The resource center hires and trains the local providers who work with schools to implement the online Compass Learning program. Monthly video conferences keep the network of local providers updated. In a district with 669 students and eight schools separated by large distances, Jack Foster, superintendent of Southwest School District in Dillingham, Alaska, says the agency provides a service “that is mandatory under NCLB [and] a great opportunity for students but one most students would not have available otherwise.”

Focused Training
Geographic isolation because of distance or difficult terrain, complicated by the few teachers in any given subject, presents significant barriers for small rural school districts in providing high-quality professional development opportunities. Too often what is available may be so generic that it has little value for helping classroom teachers improve student achievement to expected standards. Educational service agencies can be the answer.

In Missouri, 10 rural districts, facilitated by the Southwest Center for Educational Excellence, are participating in a five-year effort funded by the National Science Foundation to improve math and science education. “Our teachers now have access to exceptional people through the Ozark Rural Systemic Initiative who can help them know how to implement a standards-based curriculum and use inquiry-based instructional methods,” says Jim Orrell, superintendent in Cassville, Mo. “ORSI brings high-quality professional development to a convenient central location, and better yet, to our school district.”

Overcoming the distance issue is essential. Jack Broome knows the issue well. Now in his fifth year as a member of the South Dakota Board of Education, Broome also is superintendent, principal and sometimes bus driver for the 240-pupil Burke School District in the east-central part of the state.

“Mid-Central Education Cooperative gives teachers access to quality professional development without driving over 200 miles to get it,” Broome says. “My teachers don’t have to uproot their family now to stay away at night. They can drive about 30 miles to the cooperative and learn about new assessments or other topics and also network with teachers from other districts.”

Access to focused professional development also can reduce the turf issues and blame game within a school district. Because the North East Florida Educational Consortium in Palatka, Fla., trained all teachers and principals in the Baker County Schools on effective reading practices, Superintendent Paula Barton says, “We no longer point fingers at who did not do their job in helping students acquire essential reading skills. All teachers in the school district now accept the responsibility to help all students read at the appropriate level. And our test results are starting to show results.”

School leaders believe their service agencies often give them better alternatives than canned training programs. Dennis Turner, superintendent of the North Lawrence Community Schools in Bedford, Ind., points to his service agency, the Southern Indiana Education Center, which serves 33 school districts in the southwestern part of the state. The center, he says, “gives us a process, not a cookie cutter approach, for selecting best practices to implement in our middle schools and high school.”

His instructional staff benefits from the direct assistance provided by a cadre of trained, experienced and proven mentors or coaches who can customize the approach based on each school’s needs, Turner says.

Principals play an important leadership role in taking advantage of service agencies’ focused professional development programs. In the Sanilac Intermediate School District in Peck, Mich., principals are required to select teachers from core content areas for participation in a 4-day Teacher Leader Academy and to facilitate discussions among teachers during the academy. Teachers learn to use common data analysis software, curriculum and pacing guides.

Tech Support
Rural school districts also tap into the potential of educational service agencies for technology and administrative services, many of which give students access to educational opportunities or free school personnel of duties that detract from instructional activities.

“Our five small high schools are located in communities separated by a lot of distance. We can offer a more robust curriculum in each school because Southern Oregon Educational Service District serves as our technology hub,” says David Davis, superintendent of Klamath County, Ore., School District.

The intermediate district makes videoconferencing possible so that a teacher at one school can teach the same course live to students in the other four schools. The Southern Oregon Educational Service District also enables high schools in the other 12 districts it serves to access the Klamath course offerings, usually at no cost. When necessary, the service agency also may hire teachers and offer fee-based courses, such as Spanish, needed by students in high schools scattered across the region’s 11,000 square miles.

The Southeast Service Cooperative in Rochester, Minn., offers a web-based tool called the Surveys of Enacted Curriculum to its 40 member districts. The use of the online survey helps educators quickly identify gaps and redundancies in the district’s K-12 math, science and reading/language arts curriculum compared to the enacted curriculum, intended curriculum (state standards) and the assessed curriculum.

“The tool saves teachers’ time and we know how the district’s curriculum matches with state and national standards,” says Phil Minkkinen, superintendent of Chatfield School District, a 920-student system that belongs to the cooperative.

In West Virginia, Regional Education Service Agency IV in southwestern West Virginia developed the Substitute Employee Management System, an automated calling system that frees up site administrators from finding a substitute teacher or support staffer during an unplanned absence.

“The system also saves us money because it reduced the amount of overtime pay to service employees,” Kay Carpenter, superintendent of Webster County Schools, says. “Record keeping is also automated, which provides documentation that the law was followed in selecting subs according to criteria in state code.”

In Washington state, Educational Service District 112 makes available an NCLB Communication Toolkit to its 30 school districts. It includes sample letters, forms, news releases and Q&A sheets to help educators talk easily and accurately with parents and community members about the law. “It is one of many resources available from ESD 112 that saves us time and money,” says Jim Saltness, superintendent of the Stevenson-Carson School District in Stevenson, Wash.

High School Reform
Rural school districts interested in reforming their high schools may find educational service agencies to be a perfect partner in mounting a serious effort.

Large consolidated countywide rural high schools may need to create a smaller, more personalized learning environment for students, particularly where a significant portion of the student population is in poverty. Seven school districts and the Kentucky Educational Development Corporation, the state’s largest nonprofit educational service agency, formed a consortium to secure a $2.3 million Smaller Learning Communities grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The educational corporation manages the grant and provides professional development and networking opportunities for the participating schools.

John Paul Amis, superintendent of the Perry County Schools in Hazard, Ky., one of the seven participating school districts, says the federal grant enables his district to create a freshman academy that promotes building personal relationships between students and educators while holding each child to high expectations.

At the high school in Perry County, reading across the curriculum in all content areas has become common, even though the faculty has long been tied to traditional teaching practices. Freshman now have gender-specific classes and the same set of teachers for the core academic subjects. Reading Academic Index scores increased 21 points for the first group of students to complete the freshman academy and the gender-distinct core classes. CTBS scores increased a total of 20 points over a two-year period. Freshman discipline referrals decreased by 70 percent.

In Nebraska, where small rural school districts prevail, Educational Service Unit 1 in the state’s northeast region partnered with four other service units and several school districts to hold a two-day conference on high school reform. Mike Moody, superintendent in Wakefield, Neb., believes the conference had value for him and his colleagues. “Much of the high school reform rhetoric is the result of national summits that usually fail to involve educators,” he says. “The high school conference held by ESU 1 is giving practitioners a way to begin discussing how to change high schools, rather than waiting for some outside interest to tell us how. The ESU is helping us start our own grassroots initiative to improve high schools.”

State Networks
According to the Association of Educational Services Agencies, intermediate school districts operate in 44 states. In more than half the states, the service agencies are located statewide. In these states, rural districts may find all ESAs are collaborating to make some service available to help them meet NCLB requirements.

In California, the 58 county offices of education have formed into eight consortia to become state-approved supplemental service providers. They also collaborate to operate the nation’s largest online teacher recruitment program.

Glen Thomas, executive director of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, believes the key success factor is the capacity of the service agency executive to establish and maintain a close working relationship with all local district superintendents. A local district can buy services from any educational service agency in the state, but local superintendents support primarily those services that all can agree on as most needed.

In Pennsylvania, the 29 intermediate units are partnering with the state department of education to implement a $4.6 million school improvement and professional development initiative. The three-tiered program includes foundation assistance for all schools; targeted improvement services for schools with “improvement” or “corrective action” status; and support for districts by teams of distinguished educators.

Data Analysis
Improving teaching and learning in a high-stakes accountability environment requires that administrators and teachers know how to interpret state test results and other data to guide their instructional decisions. Few small rural school districts have the capacity to offer such assistance without tapping into the expertise of their educational service agency. Adele Bovard, superintendent of Dansville Central Schools in western New York state, says the BOCES staff helps teachers interpret the state’s 4th and 8th grade data and design specific interventions to improve students’ performance.

The Wexford-Missaukee Intermediate School District in Cadillac, Mich., provides data analysis packets for math, science and English/language arts to its seven school districts. The information includes a 3-year trend analysis for student proficiency, item analysis and data disaggregated by special education, gender, socioeconomic status and other factors relating to federal requirements. Consultants then go to each building and help teachers turn the information into a plan of action.

“It is a great service,” says Paul Liabenow, superintendent of Cadillac School District. “We find the data also help us plan appropriate professional development for teachers.”

John Kingsnorth, superintendent in Fremont, Mich., says he uses the service agency in Newaygo County to probe more deeply into the data he receives on student performance. “We are becoming much more data-driven in making decisions regarding curriculum changes and professional development of teachers.” In Ohio, Mark Wilcheck, superintendent of the Cardington-Lincoln Local School District, says he relies on the Mid-Ohio Educational Service Center in Mansfield, Ohio, to analyze data “and then sit down with us to make sense of it in a way that reveals our strengths and weaknesses. We then can focus our improvement efforts on the right things, and not just keep doing more of the same if it is not getting results with kids.”

Hobart Harmon, an education consultant, can be reached at 3699 Richardson Road, Timberville, VA 22853. E-mail: hharmon@shentel.net. He is an adjunct associate professor in the Center on Rural Education and Communities at Penn State University.