Area Educational Efforts Receive National Attention

Group Photo 2

Columbus, OH – Community efforts to improve education in the Alleghany Highlands received national attention recently as part of the program at the “National Forum to Advance Rural Education.” Sponsored by the National Rural Education Association and Battelle for Kids, this annual event brings hundreds of rural education leaders and practitioners together to learn, network, and collaborate on topics at the forefront of rural education.

The Alleghany Highlands – UVa Research Partnership was selected to present a session at the conference about the development of this partnership and early findings from the work.  Presenting at the forum were Dr. Lia Sandilos, now Assistant Professor, Psychological Studies in Education at Temple University and formerly a part of the UVA research team; Eugene P. “Gene” Kotulka, Superintendent, Alleghany County Public Schools; Melinda Snead-Johnson, Superintendent, Covington City Public Schools; and, Mary Fant Donnan, Executive Director, The Alleghany Foundation.  Critical partners in this project but unable to attend were also Dr. Sara Rimm-Kaufman, Professor, UVa Curry School of Education and several graduate students and staff members who have helped with research as well as Dianne Garcia of Covington and educational consultant to the foundation.

The presentation described the way that the two school systems, UVa’s Curry School of Education, and The Alleghany Foundation partnered together to better understand what strengths exist in our area schools, what makes great schools, and what investments of time and other resources can help move our schools from good to great.

“One thing I saw is that the community is getting national visibility for the education efforts of the Alleghany Highlands,” said Sandilos.

“The coalition provided the Alleghany County Public Schools division with the ways and means to evaluate the current status of our educational program and the recommendations to move our school division from good to great, ” stated Kotulka. “Without the coalition, the support of The Alleghany Foundation and the University of Virginia, we would not have had the financial resources as well as the man power to provide us this important information to move forward.”

Commented Snead-Johnson, “Attending the Rural Education Conference embraced the importance of fostering partnerships to meet the needs of schools in rural sections of the country who strive to provide creative but practical and sound research-based strategies for all students. Forty-two states sent passionate educational and community leaders to the conference as all are striving to foster innovative ideas to maintain strong schools in a changing culture.”

This year’s conference theme was Growing Success, which focused on connecting education and work, strengthening the profession, and supporting the whole child.  It took place on the campus of The Ohio State University.

Commented Donnan, “For me, speaking both in my professional role and as a parent, I find that a lot of measurements required these days focus on scores on standardized tests.  When we first saw the data last year, it was really exciting to see that we have so many strengths in our schools and a community of students and parents who really support our schools. It was also surprising to find that one of the best ways to strengthen educational outcomes was to strengthen the social/emotional learning in the classrooms as well as the ways parents and the community engage with our schools.”  She added, “Our area’s efforts to recognize the central role of our education professionals and engage community members in ways that support the whole child were right in line with the leading-edge practices in our country that were being highlighted at this conference.”

Students, teachers, and parents may remember completing surveys and interviews for this project between spring, 2015 and spring, 2016.  “These responses were incredibly important, and we used the data as a way of listening. With these surveys and interviews, the parents, teachers and students in your community taught us about the day-to-day experiences in your schools. We used this information to identify strengths and areas for growth specific to your community,” said Dr. Sara Rimm-Kaufman with the Curry School of Education.

Based on the research, the UVa team developed six recommendations:

  1. Build a community of support for student learning;
  2. Promote a school culture that values academic achievement and respect for each other;
  3. Enhance the quality of early childhood experiences;
  4. Improve family-school relationships; and,
  5. Boost academic achievement, starting with English Language Arts.

Following the initial presentation of research findings to the area superintendents and school boards, the first action was creation of a community-based group, now known as Education First, to help lead and oversee these engagement efforts.  Education First sponsored the first community-wide education summit in November 2016, when the recommendations were shared with the community after a viewing and discussion of the documentary, Most Likely to Succeed.

Said Garcia, “Our community is very fortunate to have this opportunity of a successful working partnership.  The Education First group has a strong commitment and vested interest of educating the students in The Alleghany Highlands and realizes Public Education is:  the cornerstone of healthy, engaged communities; essential to maintaining a thriving economy capable of operating in a competitive global marketplace; and, the most direct means of creating an informed citizenry necessary to sustain democracy.  This collaborative partnership is a very exciting opportunity for the future of our children and the future of our community. “

“In just 18 months, we’ve seen tremendous progress stemming from this partnership,” added Garcia.  “For example, the Alleghany Highlands Early Learning Partnership (AHELP) formed and led the “Rock and Read” program and other efforts to boost learning in early childhood.  Our schools have increased their adoption and use of the Responsive Classroom approach in elementary school classrooms.”

“The coalition provided Covington City Public Schools an avenue to partner with the Alleghany Foundation, Alleghany County Public Schools, and the University of Virginia in order to research our current educational practices and improve those practices. Responsive Classroom has provided an opportunity for Covington staff to address the social and emotional needs of our youngest learners. This has been a positive tool to continue to move our schools forward,” remarked Snead-Johnson.

Observed Garcia, “Through my work, with both school systems, I have seen firsthand the teachers working together between divisions.  They are learning together and sharing successes and challenges that each is experiencing during the implementation process of Responsive Classroom. The teachers and administrators are working diligently to build their students’ social and emotional skills in the early years, strengthening students’ values and contributing towards academic achievement and respect for each other. The AHELP community partnership has built a strong network promoting awareness of the need for quality early childhood experiences. High-quality early childhood education can close up to half of the achievement gap and has been shown to decrease  juvenile arrests by 50 percent and decrease graduation retention by 33 percent.”

“The Alleghany Foundation seeks to be an engaged funder that makes strategic investments to strengthen the Alleghany Highlands,” commented Donnan.  “Going into this project, we were all learning about how to engage and how to complement the work already underway in our schools.  On behalf of the foundation’s board, I want to express thanks to our superintendents and the members of our school boards for engaging with us.”

Concluded Rimm-Kaufman, “School improvement efforts are very challenging. It’s very rare to find a community willing to push aside politics and let go of their own self-interests to really focus on what’s in the best interest of children and youth. I’m impressed with the progress and growth. Kids in the Alleghany Highlands will have a better future because of this hard work.”

For more information about the research partnership or to become involved in Education First or one of the work groups, please contact either superintendent or Dianne Garcia at

Reprinted with permission from the Virginian Review.  This Story appeared in the November 4 2017, edition of the newspaper.