Ron Daley: Coalfield schools blazing paths of innovation

Ron Daley of Hazard is the former publisher/editor of the Troublesome Creek Times and founding director of University Center of the Mountains.
Ron Daley of Hazard is the former publisher/editor of the Troublesome Creek Times and founding director of University Center of the Mountains.

Educational carpetbaggers and poverty pimps, beware.

Kentucky's Appalachian coalfield has the talent to resolve its own challenges, and we will no longer tolerate people and institutions who use our pockets of poverty to fund their operations.

We are tired of those who "pop in, pop off, and pop out." Too often, well-intended folks do not understand the region, our people and the outstanding talents of Appalachia Kentuckians. Others embrace pockets of poverty as they seek funds to serve the region, while building up their institutional coffers.

This is not meant to dismiss or criticize the great work done by representatives of those outside the region. However, we expect them to put more employee boots on the ground where the opportunities exist, as opposed to keeping them in their own operations on the outside.

An example of extraordinary mountain genius is the innovative work going on in coalfield school districts, which is being followed by the rest of the nation. This came into focus recently when nearly 600 attended the largest multi-district K-12 educational professional learning event in Eastern Kentucky's history, on Oct. 24 in Pikeville.

Ninety-two teachers, 34 students, and 17 district teams presented at the National Promising Practices summit, sponsored by the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative as part of the Race to the Top's Appalachian Renaissance Initiative.

Teachers shared the innovations in learning they plan for their classrooms, using mini-grants they have been awarded. They will discuss their results at an April 21 summit in Pikeville.

Participating school districts are enhancing personalized learning for 42,256 students and 2,860 educators in 100 schools in 14 counties, with the work financed by a $30 million grant over the next four years.

The summit follows a two-month period that saw the largest rollout of Next Generation classroom technology in rural America. Next Generation classrooms connect students to other students in the cooperative or to interactive experiences around the world. New class offerings are made possible with the technology and training of teachers.

In July, the Appalachian initiative launched www.theholler.org, a digital platform for teaching and learning, a social media site for conversation and exchange of ideas, as well as developing an accessible data system for schools and the public. The site is being used to connect communities and tie education to job creation in the region.

The Race to the Top grant was one of five awarded this past year by the U.S. Department of Education. Funding was based on a proven record, innovative best practices in personalized learning and the potential for the work to be replicated elsewhere.

While providing support to teachers in the implementation of Common Core State Standards and the state system for educator effectiveness, the cooperative will provide additional resources and learning opportunities. The cooperative is also working with a group of 100 teachers and 118 administrators annually in the University of Kentucky Next Generation Teacher and Leader Academies. Over 800 teachers and administrators will have gone through the program at its conclusion, without leaving the region.

Additionally, the cooperative has developed a home-grown teacher and educator leader effectiveness approach, which includes sharing regional talent, enhancing personalized learning for students and developing personalized learning for educators.

The process includes a one-day visit to a school by a team of K-12 and higher-education partners. The team documents effective classroom and school leadership practices, while also making recommendations about areas that need more attention. Fourteen southeastern Kentucky schools are receiving follow-up support this semester.

Appalachian Kentucky, which has been branded with some "Kentucky uglies" in the way of challenges, has many Kentucky beauties in K-12 education.