School & District Management

New Research Center to Focus on Rural Leadership, Challenges, and Innovation

By Denisa R. Superville — March 23, 2021 6 min read
Graphic shows iconic data images all connected.

A new center on rural leadership and education is being set up at the University of Denver.

The Center for Innovative Rural Collaboration for Leadership in Education, or CIRCLE, recently got the greenlight from the University Council for Educational Administration, the organization that oversees leadership-preparation programs at higher-education institutions.

CIRCLE is the first standalone center that the UCEA has approved in years, and it will join others that specialize in areas like equity and urban education.

CIRCLE aims to fill a void left in both research and coverage by centering rural school and district leaders, their concerns, and experiences in research and practice. It also aims to dig deep into the expertise and knowledge of Native and Indigenous communities, as well as people of color and immigrants whose numbers have been grown in rural areas over the last two decades.

“We want to meet the educational needs of every student—whether they have just arrived from Eritrea or whether they are sixth-generation,” said Kristina Hesbol, the founding director of CIRCLE and an associate professor in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies department at Morgridge College of Education, at the University of Denver.

That goal— relying on the knowledge and experience of those who work in rural areas—is reflected in the way the center styles its approach: as a practice-research partnership, rather than a research-practice partnership.

That means that CIRCLE’s work would be largely guided by what rural K-12 educators identify as challenges and towards helping them find solutions. District staff will also work with CIRCLE’s staff to design research questions, and collect and analyze data.

CIRCLE will also function as a clearinghouse for research on rural communities and for networking school leaders in rural districts with similarly-situated peers across the country to learn from each other and swap best practices.

“The research is very clear that job alike-people learn from job-alike people,” she said.

Networking will be an important component of the center

Hesbol hopes there would be future opportunities for school leaders and researchers who specialize in rural education to spend time at the center deepening their understanding of rural education and expanding their networks, and for graduate students to live and work in rural districts for a year or two. Networking will be a huge component, she said.

The center will also conduct original research and develop analytical tools for those studying rural education; disseminate research on rural education; explore how and whether existing research translates into practice in rural settings; and present findings at conferences and through publications.

And the center aims to make an impact on school districts as a whole—from school leaders all the way up to school board members, Hesbol said.

Rural districts’ unique settings mean that they need some tailor-made resources. Rural leaders often wear many hats—the superintendent may also serve as the principal and the transportation director—and leadership programs don’t necessarily take into account the additional skills those leaders may need to juggle many different responsibilities. As the demographics change in rural areas, school leaders may have to convince their school boards to fund new positions amid scarce resources.
And the small enrollments can make assessments difficult as the sample sizes may make it easy to identify students. Those rural leaders may need help developing alternative assessments—or may have already created successful alternatives that peers in similar settings can benefit from.

While low teacher pay and brain drain are challenges, there’s also lots of innovation happening in rural districts, too, Hesbol said.

“It’s not up to us to tell them what their problems are,” Hesbol said. “I want [CIRCLE] to be very asset-based…"

Hesbol wants CIRCLE to “be a place to develop innovative practices for rural leaders.”

Research in rural education has long received short shrift

While more than nine million students attend public schools in rural areas—more than the combined enrollments of the 85 largest school districts—rural education has gotten a short shrift in research and attention.

The pandemic has unearthed a more expansive meaning of schooling inequity, particularly related to the spotty availability of broadband or inadequate access to the internet in rural areas, said Mónica Byrne-Jiménez, UCEA’s executive director.

“We often frame equity issues around race and ethnicity—as we should,” she said. “But all of a sudden there was an understanding of how poverty and geographic isolation are also equity issues…”

Even when families in rural areas have access to computers and other devices, remoteness often meant that many students still couldn’t connect to the internet to get their work done.

“There was a sudden contrast,” she said. “There is more to this than the intersection of race and poverty,” and geographic isolation and lack of services are huge equity concerns.

“Those of us who know a little about rural education were not surprised,” she said. “But I think there was a real sudden awareness that we’re not doing right by our kids in rural schools,” she said. “The pandemic absolutely highlighted that, and I think it opened a window of opportunity amidst this horribleness [for people] to contact their representatives and senators.”

Byrne-Jiménez said there’s “a real sense of urgency” for UCEA to make a statement about rural leadership.

Just like the organization is committed to racial justice and equity and is skilled in research and collaboration in urban and suburban communities, it needs to do the same in rural districts, she said.

“We need to up our game around what’s happening in rural settings,” she said.

The center could be a valuable resource to assist the education field think about rural leadership issues, how education schools prepare school leaders for rural posts, and how equity manifests in rural settings, as well as inform and shape the general discourse and research in rural education, she said.

The UCEA generally provides start-up funds for new centers, and Hesbol is currently putting together a budget and applying for grants to get CIRCLE up and running. For now, she’s operating it from her office at the University of Denver and from home.

The university where the centers are housed also generally provide assistance through staffing and or funds.

Hesbol is planning to build on work that she’s already doing in Networked Improvement Communities, which convenes practitioners in rural areas to share ideas and generate solutions to problems of practice. CIRCLE will also partner with organizations already working on rural education, including the Colorado Center for Rural Education, the National Rural Education Association, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and the Center for Practice Engaged Education Research.

Hesbol does not envision CIRCLE running a leadership-preparation program, but it could offer certificate courses in areas like culturally-responsive leadership for those who are already serving as school and district leaders. They’ll be able to take advantage of those opportunities without leaving their jobs, she said.

“We are hoping to dismantle the Hillbilly Elegy kind of stereotype,” Hesbol said. “And we also have to paint a picture that it’s not just a bucolic landscape either.”

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