How Colleges Can Anchor Rural Schools and Communities

How Colleges Can Anchor Rural Schools and Communities

By Dreama Gentry, Originally published in the March/April 2020 issue of AC&E/Equity & Access

To most people, the relationship between colleges and school districts seems straightforward. School districts educate their students, sending as many as possible study at colleges, which provide those students the skills needed for a successful career. What is less often noted is that many colleges have institutional missions that encourage them to find ways to serve their local communities.

Generally, this leads to partnerships focused on individual educational programs, such as after school tutoring or summer programs. Though such programs provide valuable resources, our experience at Partners for Education at Berea College suggests that by acting as anchor institutions, colleges can leverage greater resources to enact structural changes that will support rural students and their home communities. Expanding the number of anchor partnerships between colleges and school districts can be a critical strategy for improving access to equitable educational opportunities to students from rural areas.

What does it mean to be an anchor institution?

Generally speaking, the term is used to describe nonprofit organizations like colleges, hospitals, and libraries that are rooted in a specific community which creates a long-term commitment to improving outcomes in that place. For urban serving anchor institutions, their place may consist of a few blocks surrounding campus, which means anchor work can include sharing physical resources—such as space in buildings—or changing hiring and procurement strategies to leverage nearby resources. Rural serving anchor institutions, however, face distinctly different challenges because their place can stretch over hundreds of miles of sparsely populated territory. Adapting to this challenge led us to develop a model for rural anchor institutions built on strong relationships with rural school districts.

Our model for anchor work is rooted in strong relationships with local school systems for two reasons:

  1. Rural schools are the heart of rural communities functioning the symbolic center for community identity.
  2. Rural schools increasingly function as resource hubs that are essential to the wellbeing of rural communities.

While each rural community is unique, many face a common set of challenges including low college degree attainment rates, high rates of obesity, and lack of access to treatment facilities for addiction and other mental health issues. Due to their low population density, rural communities lack access to networks of service providers—YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, counseling services. This means that rural schools are a critical resource for addressing the broad range of community needs.

Unfortunately, most collaborations between colleges and local schools focus on a single issue, such as increasing college access, supporting students in adopting healthier lifestyles, or bringing more significant healthcare resources to the community. However, treating issues in isolation typically proves ineffective because the problems and the pressures that cause them are interconnected. Our model for working as a rural anchor counters this tendency by placing the emphasis on a long-term relationship with a school and community and on building local capacity to move educational outcomes rather than providing an individual program, activity, or service.

The model is based on five principles that are essential to success for organizations that aspire to anchor their rural community. Developing these principles enabled Partners for Education to grow from a program created to lift educational aspirations in a single school system to an organization supporting the educational success of 50,000 students across Appalachian Kentucky. More important than the number of students served is that the model leads to positive change. For example, in one community our partnership helped schools increase the percentage of students scoring proficient in math from 27% to 40% and in English language arts from 35% to 50% over the course of four years.


1) Begin the partnerships with schools by setting measurable goals focused on improving educational outcomes for all children

This means more than measuring inputs like how many hours of tutoring were offered or how many student groups participated in service activities.

For anchor work to be impactful the goals must reflect measurable changes in all members of the target population. For example, if the goal of the partnership is to improve college readiness, then the indicator of success might be an increase in the number and percentage of students at benchmark on the ACT exam. In this case, we would track this number for all students and also for subpopulations based on gender, race, and income. Such indicators keep the focus on finding what has an impact on the young people rather than the activities offered by the partners.

2) Begin from the premise that the best solutions to pressing problems are local solutions

After identifying a challenge to take on, bring together as many stakeholders as possible to identify possible solutions, evaluate potential funding streams, and, above all, set indicators for evaluating progress. Then assist the community in framing their solution by bringing relevant data and research to the table, and by sharing strategies for continuous improvement.

The value of embedding the work in the community became apparent during a project when we tried to determine why the levels of kindergarten readiness differed from county to county within the same rural region. School leaders and community members helped us see that in one area, early childhood care providers needed additional training, while in another, access to adequate facilities were the limiting factor. Thanks to input from families and practitioners on the ground, appropriate interventions were identified and rapid progress occurred on the goal of raising the level of kindergarten readiness. Remarkably, the rate went from 16.3% of students entering kindergarten ready to learn in 2011 to nearly 40% in just a few years.

3) Engage residents to lead and do the work locally

While this seems like a simple point, our method stands in stark contrast to the usual practice of higher education partnerships. Programs to support rural schools are often staffed by college and university staff and faculty who live outside the community they serve. By hiring and supporting local people to do the work, our approach builds the capacity of residents, which means the community gains its own problem-solving expertise and builds the capacity to take on challenges in other areas. Finding the best path to address those challenges becomes the responsibility of the community members who have the local knowledge needed to identify the gaps that need to be filled and the community resources that can be drawn upon. A further benefit to embedding services in this way is that it increases the likelihood that solutions will be well received and implemented sustainably by the school and the community.

4) Adapt research-based activities, services and programs to fit the context of rural communities

For example, service programs like AmeriCorps have typically been used to develop a sense of civic engagement in young people by providing them the opportunity to serve those less fortunate. But, residents of communities of persistent poverty, such as Appalachian Kentucky, deserve the opportunity to serve. We created an AmeriCorps program—based on a proven urban model—and actively recruited community members who were under-employed or in retirement to apply. This created a path for residents to serve in their home community. These locally sourced service members provide tutoring and mentoring to students in schools across Appalachian Kentucky. We see this as one of our most successful programs because it increases educational outcomes of today’s youth and develops a local workforce with valuable skills.

5) Adapt funding opportunities designed for urban and suburban schools to the rural context

Many federal programs were developed with the resources of urban and suburban communities in mind. Large federal discretionary grants require considerable grants management expertise and are too burdensome for small rural districts. The ability to develop a proposal that will serve multiple rural school districts and the ability to manage such programs are critical skills. Colleges willing to serve as anchor institutions can bring this skill set to the table, and enable rural schools to access resources that would otherwise be out of reach. It is essential that anchor institutions ensure resources are driven to local interventions.

Clearly, serving as an anchor institution requires investing a great deal of energy, ingenuity, and commitment into a mutually accountable partnership. In the long term, we believe these investments will be repaid by the creation of stronger rural communities, where local residents have the skills to build a brighter future, and the creation of stronger higher education organizations that are deeply rooted in place.

As executive director of Partners for Education, Dreama Gentry leads Berea College’s educational outreach into Appalachian Kentucky. Partners for Education supports the educational aspirations of 50,000 students across eastern Kentucky using an annual budget of $40 million.

An Annie E. Casey Children and Family Fellow, Gentry also serves on the board of directors for the Fahe, a community development non-profit, and the Pine Mountain Settlement School. She is a member of the equity coalition convened by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, which seeks to ensure Kentucky’s school accountability system provides educational excellence to all students. Recently, she organized the annual Rural College Access and Success Summit, an event that brings together approximately 400 participants from across the country to improve the educational opportunities available to students from rural communities.

Gentry holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Berea College and a Juris Doctor from the University of Kentucky.

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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