All Articles Education Turning around a rural district starts with PD

Turning around a rural district starts with PD

5 min read


SmartBlog on Education in an ongoing content series will illuminate challenges and best practices in rural education. In this post, a superintendent and the chair of the school board recount how the Florida Rural Turnaround Leadership Program benefited their district.
Interested in contributing to this series? Contact our team with your ideas.

Like many states, Florida has rural schools that are struggling. To provide school boards, superintendents, principals and senior staff support in developing strategic plans and evaluation systems to improve low-achieving schools, the state of Florida created a professional development series called the Florida Rural Turnaround Leadership Project. To kick off the initiative, nearly 100 district and school leaders from 10 districts took part in a two-day professional development event.

Jacob Oliva, superintendent

Flagler County Schools serves 12,943 students in 11 schools and two charter schools. Eight of the district’s schools have more than 50% of their students participating in the free-and reduced lunch program this year, and four of these schools have rates exceeding 67%. Five schools are currently receiving Title I funds.

I’m in my 16th year in the district and have served as a teacher, dean, assistant principal, principal and assistant superintendent. I am currently in my second year as school superintendent. The biggest challenge that I have faced as a leader so far was my lack of experience working at the district level.

For the Florida Rural Turnaround Leadership Project, we primarily participated in centralized professional development. I personally went to the sessions and worked with the principals and their teams on the development and implementation of their plans. In a retreat, we did data analysis workshops with the school board members that helped them understand why the schools developed the goals they put forth.

One result of the project was having the schools work in feeder patterns. It was the first time the principals from elementary, middle and high school analyzed data in a feeder pattern and developed strategic plans looking at students as a cohort moving through the school system.

Another main point that we took away was the alignment of resources and allocations. When we identified areas of need, the board supported additional funding to help us achieve our identified goals. For example, we wanted to increase science test scores, so the board approved funding for the addition of a district-level science curriculum specialist.

Implementing change across the district needs to be a collaborative process. When changing a school process, it has to be done methodically, it has to be data-driven, and it has to involve the people it affects. This project helped the school district identify opportunity gaps as opposed to achievement gaps, focus on college and career pathways, and break out of working in silos.

Colleen Conklin, school board chair

I came from the classroom, and I’ve been on the board for about 16 years. For the Rural Turnaround Leadership Project, our focus was on turning around our science scores. Students were not performing to a level that we found acceptable. We focused on how to do that in elementary, middle and high school; and how to build up our AP and other coursework so that we could encourage enrollment by minority groups.

Middle schools and high schools worked collaboratively to target and invite high-achieving students and their parents to informational meetings. They worked with community mentoring groups to ensure they had appropriate information about AP and advanced course work. They went out of their way to share additional information about the benefits of advanced course work with minority stakeholders. This extra, targeted effort has paid off tremendously. The district was just honored by the College Board and named to its 2015 Gaston Caperton Opportunity Honor Roll, a list of 130 districts across the U.S. that were recognized for creating opportunities for traditionally underrepresented students.

We spent a good bit of time analyzing the data on student performance in reading, math and science. At the end of the day, it’s all interrelated. We looked for best practices and how to replicate those best practices.

From a school board perspective, we focused on policy, budget, accountability and community outreach. We needed to ensure our policies supported our initiatives and that the budget was in alignment with our stated goals. It was important to ensure accountability measures, cost and policies supported the initiatives we discussed.

Community outreach is always a big part of what school boards do: updates during workshops, speaking to civic groups, hosting town halls, working with industry experts. Each of our schools adopted flagship programs that were designed around industry needs and STEM. The board’s ongoing involvement is ensuring, year after year, that our budget aligns with what our stated priorities are.

When you look today at our district as a whole, you see our science program flourishing under the flagship model. We have students learning about agrisci/hydroponics, aviation and unmanned systems, health sciences, and alternative energies. Focusing on the data helped us collaborate on finding a solution and putting together a framework to create success. The work is not done. We’ve been at this now for a couple of years. We now have to push ourselves beyond these pockets of excellence in order to achieve districtwide change.

Jacob Oliva is the superintendent of Flagler County Schools in Florida, and Colleen Conklin is the chair of the Flagler County Schools board. The Florida Rural Turnaround Leadership Project was developed by The Florida Department of Education and its partner, Public Consulting Group.

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s email list for more stories about education. We offer newsletters covering educational leadership, special education and more.