Rural School Leadership in the Deep South: The Double-Edged Legacy of School Desegregation

Last Updated: October 01, 2002

The Double-Edged Legacy of School Desegregation

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By Doris Williams and Jereann King

The Rural Trust believes that the conditions and experiences of school leaders in the Delta and Black Belt Regions of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi offer powerful insights into and important lenses through which to view and understand the challenges and opportunities for improving these and other schools.

In March 2002, with funding from the Wallace Readers' Digest Fund, the Rural Trust convened a Rural School Leaders Working Group comprised of 20 principals, superintendents and instructional supervisors from those states to discuss the issues, challenges and opportunities for school leadership from their individual and collective perspectives as experienced leaders in what are arguably among the most difficult places in the country to operate a school. Their insights and articulated needs are reflected throughout this report. The data collected from the Working Group are summarized in several findings with implications for approaching rural school leadership in the South:
  • Leading efforts to improve student achievement in response to state and local accountability standards requires a systematic approach that focuses on the particular circumstances and relationships within the school district. The process also requires extended time frames and attention to organizational and community culture.
  • Leading collaborative processes among schools, parents, and communities requires attention to the community's history, culture, resources, and network of opinion leaders, and must incorporate strategies for shared decision-making and inclusive ownership of outcomes.
  • School leaders need a broad base of knowledge and skills, which includes organizational development and management; data collection, management and analysis; strategic planning; advocacy; coalition and partnership building; cultural knowledge and sensitivity; instructional leadership and assessment; and curriculum development.
  • School leaders can identify the issues and challenges they face in their school districts, but lack data and other evidence, coalitions, plans, and strategies for changing policies that adversely affect their efforts to improve school and student learning.
This is the first of a two-part report intended to give a wider public voice to school leaders in the Delta and Black Belt Regions (see Rural School Leadership in the Deep South: A Framework for Professional Development). It is a first step in creating a network of rural school leaders and partners committed to exploring and creating new knowledge on rural school leadership and to designing practitioner-led professional development initiatives to improve the leadership skills of the Regions' novice, experienced and prospective school leaders. We fully expect what we learn here to serve as a model for school leadership development in other places — rural and non-rural.

In addition to the findings from the Rural School Leaders Working Group session, this report includes a brief bibliography of selected literature on school improvement, and data intended to give a clearer picture of the context within which Working Group members work every day. Based on the findings, the literature, and the data, several recommendations for next steps are presented. The report is structured along major topics of discussion on the Working Group's meeting agenda. Processes used to generate discussions at various points are included in shaded boxes throughout the report. Major points, conclusions, or implications of the discussion are presented in boxed statements at the end of each section of the report.