Rural Innovative Schools

At North Carolina New Schools, we believe that all students need to be both college and career ready when they graduate high school. Transforming traditional high schools to better meet the needs of all students is critical not only for the students themselves, but also for our state’s future economy.

The Rural Innovative Schools initiative addresses the unique challenges of high-need students in rural areas by radically changing expectations for college readiness, teaching and learning, personalization, professionalism, leadership, and school design with a program that is affordable and scalable for participating districts.

Connecting in rural communities

The Rural Innovative Schools initiative began with a federal grant awarded in 2011. Through this initial grant, NC New Schools has partnered with the State Board of Education, the NC Department of Public Instruction, the NC Community College System, the UNC System and 11 rural school districts to apply lessons learned from the state’s growing number of early college high schools.

The unique $16.5 million effort, supported by a $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education over five years with matched private donations of $1.5 million under the federal Investing in Innovations (i3) initiative, aimed at exposing all high school students to a college-ready culture and creating new opportunities for all students to graduate from high school with some college credit. Students in the schools have the opportunity to earn as many as 21 college credits –- tuition free -– by graduation through local community colleges and online courses offered by the UNC Greensboro iSchool and the East Carolina University Second Life virtual education program.

Early results suggest the initiative is helping keep students in school and on track to graduation. The combined dropout rate for the first five schools to join the effort fell by nearly a third in 2011-2012 to 2.43 percent from 3.53 percent the year before, according to state data released in May 2014.

Scaling up success

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education awarded NC New Schools a $20 million scale-up grant to extend the work begun in 2011, based on strong evidence of effectiveness. The grant will fund college-readiness efforts on several fronts, including:

  • Expansion of districtwide college-readiness approaches currently being pursued in the state
  • The creation of six new early college high schools as stand-alone schools or the application of early-college strategies within traditional high schools
  • The development of seven demonstration sites within North Carolina that can be used as national study schools
  • Work with two other states to build capacity to open six early colleges based on the NC New Schools model
  • Provide state and regional capacity-building to two additional states to set the foundation for future early college schools

Reaching across NC and beyond

The program has brought NC New Schools’ proven Design Principles and research-based instructional alignment strategies into 18 traditional high schools serving high-need students. Partner school districts in the initial grant include the following counties: Alleghany, Beaufort, Bladen, Hertford, Jones, Madison, Martin, Rutherford, Surry, Warren and Yancey.

The initial five-year grant will impact more than 20,000 students by 2016. The new scale-up grant estimates that an additional 13,300 students and more than 850 educators and district leaders will benefit from the funded projects.

Changing culture, instruction, expectations

The approach of the rural innovation effort borrows from best-practice strategies developed in North Carolina’s network of pioneering schools. These schools develop a culture of continuous improvement and accountability where education professionals are encouraged to take risks that improve teaching and learning.

Each school receives a well-integrated system of support by embedding master educators in schools to work collaboratively with teachers and principals. Educators actively participate in intense professional development around data driven strategies that increase expectations for classroom rigor, relevance and student engagement by requiring students to read, write, think and talk in every classroom, every day.

This initiative aims to significantly improve student outcomes including:

  • Improved four-year cohort graduation rate
  • Successful completion of college preparatory courses
  • Increased college credits earned

Program reports:

Partners include:

Funders include:

For more information, contact Dennis Davis at

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