In three weeks, education experts, including Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the U.S. Department of Education’s John White, and Rural Trust Executive Director Doris Williams, will be speaking to educators, administrators, policymakers, and other stakeholders from throughout Tennessee and as far away as North Dakota at SCORE’s Southeast Regional Rural Education Summit. The objectives for the two-day event include discussing the unique challenges our rural communities face, highlighting innovative ways that communities are meeting these challenges, and identifying wide-ranging efforts that we can all take to strengthen rural communities to meet the new demands of a changing world.

The summit, which will be held July 19 and 20 at Lipscomb University in Nashville, is designed to provide participants with access to state, regional, and national leaders on rural education issues through a series of general sessions and to give them the opportunity for face-to-face training with resource experts in a variety of breakout sessions. Since SCORE was founded, we have traveled throughout the state to identify those policies and practices that are enabling districts to make significant gains in student achievement.

While we have witnessed many innovative practices in our rural communities—including our partner organization, the Niswonger Foundation’s i3 work with the Northeast Tennessee College and Career Ready Consortium—we have also heard from you that the sharing of these best practices is limited. The summit is designed to meet that crucial need, and the themes and topics that run throughout the two days—including bolstering administrator success, improving teacher effectiveness, and using technology to expand the access to rigorous coursework for students—are a response to the myriad conversations we have had with you about what you need to make our schools #1 in the region. (For a full agenda, click here).

Although rural students perform just as well or better on national aptitude exams than their urban and suburban counterparts, they often attend schools in districts that lack the organizational capacity to provide them with the skills they need to be successful after high school. These are districts that lack access to rigorous, college preparatory coursework for their students, that have difficulty attracting and retaining effective teachers in geographically isolated areas, and that must train their administrators for a wide array of skills (from athletic director to bus driver) they will need in rural districts that lie outside the purview of their non-rural counterparts. Rural educators often work in isolation and, in turn, have weak professional learning communities that reinforce ineffective practices.

Due to budgetary constraints at the state level, rural communities face the pressure to consolidate districts that may lie many miles apart and serve vastly different student populations. Families in rural communities often face limited alternative options to failing schools, and parents are more likely to encourage their gifted students to leave the community because of economies that have historically rewarded low-skilled labor. Above all, in our rural communities that could benefit the most, there is a lack of awareness about the crucial connection between educational attainment and the vibrancy of our economies. Over the coming weeks, The SCORE Sheet will be featuring guest commentary from a handful of speakers and presenters who have found innovative ways to meet these myriad challenges and have strengthened their schools and communities in spite of the barriers they face.

We understand that Tennessee now expects more from our students, educators, and all other partners in education to ensure that all students graduate high school prepared for college or the workforce. We also know that as a state and region we won’t be able to achieve our ambitious goals without focusing on our rural schools and communities, which educate one-third of all public school students in the Tennessee.