12/12/2012 05:25 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2013

Empowering Rural School Districts: A Vision Unfulfilled

The "Race to the Top - District" (RTT-D) program was billed as an opportunity for any school district in America to compete for a chance to win funds and bring innovative educational approaches to their students. There were 372 districts and consortiums that applied and this week 61 finalists were identified. Unfortunately, very few small, rural school districts made the cut. Of the finalists that were rural, the vast majority joined one-size-fits-all consortia applications that might not necessarily address individual needs.

Why does this matter? It does because a large number of low-income, at-risk youth live and attend school in rural America. In order to be eligible for the RTT-D competition, at least 40 percent of participating students needed to be from low-income families. In the 2008-2009 school year, approximately 20 percent of the nation's total public school enrollment attended a rural school, and approximately 40 percent of those children lived at or below the poverty line.

Disparity in competitive grant competitions between small, rural and other districts is not a new issue. In fact, the RTT-D competition made a good-faith attempt to level the playing field by including rural-specific categories. But these measures have not achieved success because small, rural districts lack tested, proven programs, have limited access to skilled workers, and cannot reach as many children as larger school districts.

Save the Children, through its work in poor, rural communities, has come face to face with these realities. To overcome rural obstacles, we work together with districts to compete for public grants to fund early learning and school-age supplemental education programs. We have developed a system that has allowed us to win millions of dollars in public grants for these districts across the country. This process has been dubbed the Rural Empowerment Model. The Rural Empowerment Model "empowers" a rural district and its community members so that they can win a grant and run a quality program.

Roane County Schools, a small district of 2,300 students nestled in the rural Appalachia, was a natural candidate for RTT-D because of their commitment to innovation. Roane County Schools had introduced new ways of teaching that incorporate personalized learning and align closely to the Common Core Standards.

Save the Children connected Roane with partners and expertise that strengthened their application. The Rural School and Community Trust offered expertise on pedagogy and place-based learning strategies, Apple gave guidance on use of individual tablets and incorporating technology into teaching, and Marshall University provided expertise on common core alignment and curriculum enhancements.

Despite working with these partners to strengthen their proposal and gaining the necessary school and community support , Roane County Schools was not selected as a finalist for RTT-D. Whether Roane made the cut or not is irrelevant. What matters is that the challenges facing Roane'sapplication are the same ones preventing small, rural districts from competing and winning these grants.

First, Roane along with finalists such as New York City and Philadelphia Public Schools addressed teacher training and use of technology. However, the finalists pointed to an evidence base that supports their program models. Roane, like many of their peers, has not had the opportunity to pilot their model to demonstrate its efficacy. Therefore, applicants like Roane need seed money to build evidence in order to compete with applicants who are already scaling proven models.

Second, Roane proposed hiring specialized staff to become trainers for their teachers. Yet the workforce in rural Roane County does not have a pool of highly skilled candidates ready to assume these jobs. It is understandable that a grant reviewer would consider this factor when assessing the feasibility of a proposal. Applicants in proximity to university graduates and other qualified talent would have a clear edge. Again, rural districts find themselves -- because of their geographical location -- at a disadvantage.

Finally, Roane is a small school district and can only reach a limited number of children. Innovation grants can only be successful when they spur broad-based change. Small, rural school districts are isolated by their nature, so even if they achieve change, the ability to export and scale up that change to other districts is less certain. It is reasonable that a reviewer would favor an application with a clear path for scalability, something that would be present with a consortia or large district application. Again, how can a small, rural district compete head-to-head under these criteria against large school districts?

Through our work with Roane, the district has fully developed their own personalized learning approach and established lasting partnerships with high quality organizations. Roane County Schools now has in their hands a strategic plan to reform their educational practices as well as their own internal capacity to write for other grants. Those assets combined with an unwavering desire to improve the educational opportunities for their children will continue to drive Roane to seek ways to move forward.

The time has come to abandon the use of half measures like rural competitive preference points and priorities. The current RTT-D application created five separate absolute priorities that included two rural specific categories. Yet funds were not set aside specifically for each category. This is reminiscent of the first Investing in Innovation (i3) competition where applicants with at least one rural school district could receive extra points added to their score. According to the Rural School and Community Trust's Taking Advantage report, this was ineffective because a significant number of the successful applicants awarded these points were found not at that time to be serving rural populations.

Rural school districts should participate in separate competitions for innovation funding against their peers. Children deserve an equal chance to receive innovative approaches to their education regardless of their zip code.