Young participants in the Rural LIFE program

The i3/EIR grant program funds hundreds of organizations throughout the country, all of whom are engaged in forward-thinking, even boundary-pushing work. The InProgress interview series conveys the breadth and excitement of our diverse grantees by letting them explain their work in their own words. These aren’t success stories, exactly, but portraits of ongoing work, with all the inspiration and obstacles that implies.

For this installment we hear from Richard Kitzmiller, Vice President of the Niswonger Foundation and Project Director for Rural LIFE, for which the Foundation has an i3 grant.

i3/EIR: What kind of work is Rural LIFE doing with its EIR grant?

RICHARD KITZMILLER: Rural Literacy Initiative Focused on Effectiveness (Rural LIFE) aims to improve literacy among students in grades 6-8. Our strategy is to promote personalized learning within schools, add to teachers’ understanding of adolescent literacy, and promote personalized learning strategies. The schools we serve are located in Northeast Tennessee, and a majority are identified as “rural.”

Seventy-two schools committed to the project, with half in the treatment group and half in the comparison group. After two years of implementation, the 36 comparison schools will also receive two years of support (in the project’s final two years).

Each school develops a unique literacy-focused school plan. Each plan is based on student data and is tailored according to their strengths and weaknesses and to the availability of school resources. Each school’s plan, when finalized and approved, is supported with project funds and with an academic coach. Each coach supports four schools; on average, a coach supports each school one day per week.

i3/EIR: How far along are you in your grant?

KITZMILLER: We are in the second year of the five-year project, but in many ways, it feels like the first year. After a year of planning and preparation, our 36 treatment schools and our academic coaches are in their first year of implementation and support.

i3/EIR: What’s been the biggest challenge?

KITZMILLER: Our biggest challenge has been turnover among key members of the schools’ leadership team. Summer training for principals and lead teachers was effective for most schools, but in some cases the principal was only selected during in the summer or lead teachers were moved to another school. Newly appointed lead teachers or principals had much to learn about their school (and the Rural LIFE project). We’ve needed to play “catch up” in these cases.

i3/EIR: What’s an unexpected lesson you’ve learned so far?

KITZMILLER: We were surprised by the variation in school programs. Our point of reference was our previous Investing in Innovation (i3) project (we were a 2010 grantee). The 30 high schools we served with that grant varied in size and “rurality,” but were very similar in curriculum approaches, scheduling, teacher characteristics, and expectations.

However, the 36 schools in our current treatment group show more variation. Like the previous high schools, they vary in size and “rurality,” but their grade-level configurations vary: some are K-8, some 6-8 (even 7-8). Some schools have an elementary “feel”; most teachers and principals have elementary licensure and experience. Others are more oriented as “junior” high schools, with teachers and principals having a secondary school background. Schedules and patterns of grouping students vary considerably. At the level of the individual teacher, the ability to design and deliver appropriate literacy support and instruction varies considerably.

This variation among the schools validates our strategy of having a unique plan of support for each school. We know of no standardized model that would have been “ideal” for all schools.