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Center Ideas: Rural Districts Benefit from a Networked Improvement Community

More than one in four public schools in the United States are classified as rural. Yet rural districts often face challenges at a higher level, such as poverty, limited resources, and teacher scarcity, with less funding compared to urban districts. Communication and collaboration can also be a struggle making rural districts feel even more isolated. One promising solution being utilized by Kentucky, with the help of Region 5 Comprehensive Center (R5CC), is a Networked Improvement Community.  

A Networked Improvement Community (NIC) is designed to inform improvement initiatives by solving problems of practice. A NIC uses a team approach, offering brainstorming, consultation, and feedback, so participants learn with and from each other. Community members are able to share best practices, what has worked, and what became lessons learned.

Imagine a puzzle with hundreds of pieces. Everyone gets one piece of the puzzle revealing part of a picture. It would be difficult to determine the outcome from just one piece. However, when a NIC team is initiated, there are more clues, more perspectives, and more brainpower to solve the mystery. When multiple teams get together and share their pieces and provide their hypothesis, all of the shapes and colors start to make sense, revealing the full picture. Having opportunities for rural districts to meet and share troubles and triumphs, can help create a much-needed connection and valuable resource.

The Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) Office of Education Technology, in partnership with Kentucky Online Learning Experience Collaborative, started a NIC with R5CC to align their initiatives to the United We Learn vision. The goal is to improve communication, increase collaboration, and provide high-quality online learning experiences for students.

The NIC is designed to promote three levels of learning:

  • Individual learning – as a person engages in their work
  • Organizational learning – across individuals within a workplace
  • Cross-organizational – when organizations learn from one another

According to Ben Maynard, Digital Learning Coach for KDE’s Office of Education Technology, the average district in Kentucky is about 2000 students and most of them are classified as rural. He’s reported success with the NIC so far and is looking forward to the unforeseen byproducts of the experience. As districts learn to solve problems of practice and support one another, common goals will be reached faster, issues will be solved sooner, and educators who were feeling isolated as they staffed virtual programs will have more support and stronger bonds.

The NIC process has enabled them to share experiences, share content, share expertise, and lean on one another in a way that they didn’t think was possible…leaders feel as though they’re off their island now and connected in a way that has been beneficial because many of them have been going through the same experiences with their staff and their students and…now they have some others to learn with and collaborate with. The NIC process has really helped us drop those divisions that they perceived were there. –Ben Maynard

R5CC has established thriving NICs in Kentucky and Virginia with more states and districts eagerly waiting to onboard. The skills and capacity gained produce better communicators, leaders, and, ultimately, better education systems.

Improvement is a mindset and a skillset; it’s how we think about not perfect but better every day and how we build that aligned work behavior so that our practices, our work flow, our efforts are really magnified into impact. –Dr. Pat Greco, Studer Educator, former Superintendent of Menomonee Falls Schools

To learn more about the NIC and access the self-guided online courses, visit the R5CC website.