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How One Nonprofit Is Pooling Public and Private Funds to Support Students in Rural America

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Students in the U.S. are having a rough go of it. In addition to pandemic-related school closures and an alarming increase in school shootings, students across the nation are contending with learning loss, mental health struggles, widening equity gaps, and draconian attacks on public education. 

Although these struggles are being felt nationwide, rural schools receive far less attention. According to a report by the Rural School and Community Trust, more than 9.3 million — almost 20% — of students in the U.S. attend a rural school. Of these students, almost 1 in 6 lives below the poverty line.

In a 2021 article about rural schools, the New York Times argued that the problem isn’t just that rural communities are more likely to be impoverished, but rather, they’re also “often disconnected from the nonprofits and social-service agencies that plug holes in urban and suburban schools.”

One nonprofit working to make a difference is Partners for Rural Impact (PRI). For almost three decades, PRI was an initiative of Berea College called Partners for Education, which focused on building education in Appalachian Kentucky. Last year, PRI launched as a standalone 501(c)(3) nonprofit. It is now a national organization working to move educational outcomes not just in Appalachia, but in rural places across the nation. 

“When we started this, we never anticipated that we would end up having this many people doing this much work, and that the need would be even greater,” said PRI’s founder, president and CEO, Dreama Gentry, who also served as the executive director of Partners for Education. “We just got too big.”

For a long time, Partners for Education relied solely on public funding. Over the past five years, however, it began connecting with philanthropy to grow its work through private dollars. Most of PRI’s $48 million-a-year budget still comes from federal discretionary grants. On the private side, PRI receives funding from the Ballmer Group and Blue Meridian Partners, two leading poverty-focused grantmakers. That combination of funding is an example of how public and private collaborations are currently working to address some of the biggest challenges in education.

“To a large extent, philanthropy has forgotten rural America,” Gentry said. “If you look at the data, private dollars, corporate dollars, foundation dollars are not going to rural places, which is why, when we founded and started our work 27 years ago, we did it on federal lands, because we didn’t think that we could get philanthropy interested in places of persistent poverty like Appalachia. And so we want to change that.”

Funding for place-based work

PRI — and Partners for Education before it — is a member of StriveTogether, a national network that works to ensure all children have every opportunity to succeed in school and in life. Its mission is to support students “from cradle to career.” To do so, StriveTogether plays five key roles: convener, coach, codify, invest and influence. 

In addition to the Ballmer Group and Blue Meridian Partners, StriveTogether also receives funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Communities in School, the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, the Table Foundation and the Walmart Foundation.

Gentry believes public-private collaborations are essential to improving education for all children across the U.S. She hopes that other philanthropic entities will see the importance of supporting education in urban, suburban and rural America. It was Gentry’s work with StriveTogether that led to the Ballmer Group’s support of PRI. 

“The fact that [Gentry] is somebody who has worked for years in rural communities and is bringing her practical experience to help others avoid making the same mistakes and accelerate their progress is incredibly invaluable as a voice for strong place-based partnership work nationally,” said Jeff Edmondson, who now serves as the Ballmer Group’s executive director of community mobilization. In an earlier role, Edmondson was the managing director of StriveTogether. “It’s really exciting that she is stepping into this role to promote this type of work in every corner of the country.”

According to Edmondson, Gentry works to build the capacity of rural communities to create place-based partnerships, which aligns with the work of the Ballmer Group’s focus on building strong communities. 

“We are strong believers in the power of what we call place-based partnerships, which is where communities come together across sectors. So it can be education, health, housing, business, philanthropy, nonprofits, government, all working together to improve one or more specific measurable outcomes related to economic mobility,” Edmondson said. “Those partners come together using data in a really rigorous way to identify what’s already working in their own backyard, lifting that up, and then working to change policies and programs based on what the data says is really working.”

Through their work, Gentry and Edmondson realized that it was not one program alone that was going to improve education outcomes at scale. Rather, it would require partners working together across programs that include Kindergarten readiness, early-grade reading, high school graduation, and college enrollment and completion, among others. 

“It’s both programs and changes to systems and policies that are needed in order to really improve outcomes at scale,” Edmondson added. 

The Ballmer Group provides both general operating support and support for place-based partnership programs. For the past three years, the funder has given close to $4.86 million to PRI and Partners for Education before it. The funding is meant to provide coaching, technical assistance and talent development to rural communities across the nation to prepare them to enter the StriveTogether network. 

Blue Meridian, meanwhile, has contributed almost $10 million over two years to PRI as part of its own strategy to invest in place-based partnerships. The funding is meant to provide immediate relief, allow space for comprehensive recovery planning, build capacity, catalyze support and advance local policy priorities.

Education for children in rural areas

According to Gentry, students in rural America face many of the same issues as children in urban areas. These issues simply arise in different ways. For example, like students in metro areas, rural students are facing an enormous increase in mental health struggles, which have only increased during the pandemic. In rural America, the lack of mental health care is far more stark.

Isolation was another big issue that arose among students during the pandemic. In urban and suburban areas, this isolation was social due to school closures, but in rural America, the isolation is also geographic. When learning went digital, this was exacerbated by the lack of Wi-Fi access in many rural places.

Many children, for example, don’t have access to early childhood education and thus start kindergarten at a disadvantage. To address this, PRI has a program that offers early childhood education and support for families in areas that are geographically isolated. Two staff members, one that works with children and another that works with parents and guardians, visit the homes of children and offer early childhood support, driving buses named Rosie the Readiness Bus and Sunny. 

“Sunny and Rosie went through the backroads of Clay County for several years, and now our partners are continuing to keep them running,” said Gentry. During the pandemic, the buses brought food and homework for school-aged children. 

“The other piece is the loss of hope, especially in those places of persistent poverty in rural America, where we’ve seen the economy collapse, and the lack of jobs,” said Gentry. This has led many students to decide not to complete high school or attend college, as they don’t believe there will be jobs for them. 

PRI works to accelerate educational outcomes by addressing the program gap found in rural areas to ensure all students have equitable access to resources, building capacity in rural schools and communities to be data-driven and focused on equity, and by aligning local, regional and national systems to ensure students succeed. 

“What we realized is that in rural areas, particularly at persistent poverty, it does take concerted effort, time and attention to move outcomes for kids and for families,” said Gentry. “We want to see all kids be successful and attain a post-secondary degree. The fact that you’re in rural America shouldn’t stop you from that.”

As PRI’s work expands beyond Appalachia, Gentry hopes that other private funders support their work. According to Gentry, the Ballmer Group and Blue Meridian Partners took “a chance and stepped out and supported” them. “I’m hoping that through their support, they can get others interested.”

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