This school year, The Ayers Foundation, the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET), the Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning and Innovation, and the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) are partnering to support 15 Tennessee rural school districts as they address the unique challenges of teaching and learning during COVID-19. This partnership – the Tennessee Rural Acceleration and Innovation Network (TRAIN) – was established to support rural districts in particular as they design and implement comprehensive plans for supporting the continuity and acceleration of student learning throughout 2020-21 – including for both virtual and in-person school settings. 

Starting in the summer, TRAIN districts have engaged in weekly collaboration to develop continuous learning plans, design and provide professional development, and problem solve key issues. The network includes the five districts that The Ayers Foundation supports – Decatur, Henderson, Lawrence, Perry, and Unicoi County Schools – and 10 others that were selected to further The Ayers Foundation’s and Governor Bill Lee’s efforts to support and prioritize those in rural Tennessee. Those districts include Benton, Chester, Gibson SSD, Hardin, Haywood, Henry, Hickman, Lauderdale, Paris SSD, and Wayne County Schools. Of the 15 TRAIN districts, eight are considered economically distressed or at-risk by the Appalachian Regional Commission. 

“Supporting rural Tennessee has been my passion, and this is a moment when I believe philanthropy must play a role in ensuring students and teachers in rural Tennessee have what they need to be successful,” said Janet Ayers, president of The Ayers Foundation. “Rural Tennesseans are facing many of the same challenges as those in larger or better resourced counties, and we want to support them to be successful for the 2020-21 school year.” 

“For students to be successful, equipping rural educators with what they need to accelerate learning this school year will be critical,” said Dr. Candice McQueen, CEO of NIET. “We are proactively supporting districts to be ready for a variety of scenarios in 2020-21 and helping their teachers to strengthen instruction – regardless of in-person or virtual teaching – while building relationships and growing learning with a new group of students this fall.” 

TRAIN districts are utilizing guidance and tools from the Tennessee Department of Education, NIET, and the Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning and Innovation. Districts focused first on meeting foundational needs – purchasing more devices and increasing internet access – to be able to deliver virtual instruction. As purchasing, funding, and planning came together, attention has shifted to delivering successful virtual instruction. Now, districts are working with NIET and Ayers Institute consultants to finalize Continuous Learning Plans and design and execute on ongoing professional learning and instructional support for 2020-21.

 In addition to ongoing collaboration with members of the Ayers Institute and NIET, TRAIN districts will gather for regular network meetings throughout the year to problem-solve common trends and challenges. They will also receive professional learning tailored to their district needs both now and throughout the year as they learn and talk with teachers about what they most need. In addition to these direct supports, SCORE will provide support in learning along with the network and in sharing best practices that can benefit other Tennessee districts. 

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