This Op-Ed originally appeared in the 3/17/12 Knoxville News Sentinel.

When someone mentions the word “school,” what do you think of? Your children’s school? The school you attend currently? Or do you think of the school that is embedded in your childhood memories?

When we think about iconic institutions in our society such as schools or hospitals or grocery stores, we tend to define these words with what is closest to our day-to-day life. The problem with this dynamic is that our understanding of what school is and does often rests squarely with our own experiences. If you live in an urban area like Knoxville, you may not think about the unique needs and dynamics of rural schools, which educate nearly four in 10 students in Tennessee.

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education recognizes this challenge and is addressing it through the formation of the Rural Education Network, a consortium of leaders from educational agencies, philanthropic organizations, universities and school districts from throughout Tennessee and the nation that are dedicated to improving rural education. We are dedicated to highlighting the connection between education and economic development, empowering schools to access high-quality instruction through professional partnerships, creating professional learning communities for educators, and forming a pipeline of effective teachers and administrators to work in rural areas.

Current research tells us that rural schools experience a different reality than their counterparts in metropolitan areas. For example, in rural schools obstacles in the teacher pipeline such as recruitment, retention and professional development opportunities are magnified, and student college attendance and completion rates are lower. Additionally, poverty and household mobility are well above the national average in rural Tennessee schools. And, although they are less diverse, they are experiencing an increase in the population of English-language learners that poses new challenges for schools and school systems.

While there are many innovative things happening in our rural communities to address these challenges, including using technology, best-practice sharing is often limited in rural areas. The Rural Education Network is designed to help rural educators meet these challenges by sharing best practices and forming connections between those who are having success meeting educational challenges with those who are still struggling. We will look throughout Tennessee and the nation to identify effective strategies to address our rural communities’ most pressing needs. For example, we are working to bring together higher-education leaders to highlight the ways they are working with their rural education partners in school districts to ensure that teachers get the support they need to effectively deliver instruction, no matter what community they move to.

Schools are undeniably the heart of any community. The network is working to strengthen our schools, thereby strengthening the communities in which they reside. Our students, our communities and, ultimately, our state depend on it. We hope you will join us.