Building Capacity for Continuous Improvement of Math and Science Education in Rural Schools

Article excerpt

Schools in 47 high-poverty school districts located mostly along the Atlantic Coast of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia may have a head start on new requirements of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, thanks to a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Begun in April 2000, the five-year Coastal Rural Systemic Initiative (CRSI) is striving to stimulate sustainable systemic improvements in science and mathematics education in school districts with a long history of low student expectations, persistent poverty, low teacher pay, and high administrator turnover. The CRSI capacity-building model is designed to address issues in rural school districts that traditionally limit the capacity for creating sustainable improvements in math and science programs. A critical action step is that each school district must sign a cooperative agreement to establish Continuous Improvement Teams (CITs) at the district and school levels. These CITs represent a fundamental system capacity-building change in how decisions are made at the school and district levels-a change that is also fundamental to creating lasting improvements in math and science education programs.

Thanks to $6 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF), schools in 47 high-poverty school districts located mostly along the Atlantic Coast of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia may have a head start on new requirements of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001. Begun in April 2000, the five-year Coastal Rural Systemic Initiative (CRSI) is striving to stimulate sustainable systemic improvements in science and mathematics education in school districts with a long history of low student expectations, persistent poverty, low teacher pay, and high administrator turnover.

Almost 70 percent of the eligible districts are comprised of predominately African-American students (50% or more). Eight percent of the students are American Indian. Approximately 77 percent of the schools have 50 percent or more of their student population eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Accountability pressures of NCLB in small rural schools and their communities are stimulating debates in living rooms and court rooms (Lewis, 2003). Declaring all students must pass Algebra seldom serves to motivate students or their parents in rural communities where few opportunities exist to make use of the education. Advocating that higher levels of academic achievement will yield greater prosperity for individual students who consequently leave the local community is a hard sell to local community leaders. Attracting local financial investments and leadership support is difficult if the reform effort appears to only guarantee exportation of the community's best and brightest students.

We have learned from previous efforts that lasting reform in mathematics and science must address the limited capacity issues of rural schools and their communities. Moreover, an intervention model must focus on the needs of students while also stimulating community commitment to sustain reform efforts (Harmon, 2001; Harmon, Henderson, & Royster, 2002; Harmon & Branham, 1999; Harmon & Blanton, 1997).

The CRSI Model

The CRSI capacity-building model is designed to address common issues in rural school districts that traditionally limit the capacity for creating sustainable improvements in math and science programs:

* Small number of district staff with too many job functions and responsibilities

* Lack of district personnel with math/science background

* Inadequate data for making program improvement decisions

* Limited teacher access to professional development opportunities

* Ineffective process of decision making

* Inadequate use of existing school improvement resources

* Turnover in key leadership positions

Few rural school districts have mathematics and science specialists in the central office. …