Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Henry County School System and Paris Special School District leaders and educators have received support and assistance in advancing student learning from multiple partners throughout Tennessee.

HCSS and PSSD are two of the 15 rural school districts participating in the Tennessee Rural Acceleration and Innovation Network (TRAIN), a partnership with 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).

“Supporting rural Tennessee has always been our passion,” Ayers Foundation President Janet Ayers said, “and this has been a time when we believed philanthropy had an even bigger role to play in ensuring students and teachers in rural Tennessee had what they needed to be successful.

“Rural Tennesseans have faced many of the same challenges as those in larger and better resourced communities, so we wanted to rally in support of local school districts to help them to be successful during this incredibly challenging school year,” she said.

Local school leaders have been meeting and working with leaders from other rural school districts and TRAIN partners throughout the school year to launch remote learning options, develop continuous learning plans, design and provide professional development to teachers and school leaders, and to problem-solve around a variety of challenging issues.

“Our teachers and administrators have worked tirelessly throughout the year to prioritize the health and safety of our students while remaining committed to the social, emotional and academic growth of our students amidst these greatest challenges,” said Dr. Leah Watkins, director of schools for Henry County.

“As part of the TRAIN network, Henry County Schools has had access to idea-sharing partners across districts and critical resources which have helped us overcome obstacles and contributed to the success of our students against the greatest odds.”

Within Henry County Schools, TRAIN has supported more than 250 teachers and administrators across seven schools with training sessions on a variety of topics, including Google Classroom, virtual instruction, social-emotional learning and instructional planning.

TRAIN partners also worked with school and district leaders on providing schoolwide systemic supports to teachers and staff. In total, the TRAIN partnership has impacted 2,900 Henry County Schools students.

In PSSD, the TRAIN partnership has helped to strengthen the instructional leadership of district supervisors, principals and assistant principals, and trained 126 teachers across three schools on instructional planning and virtual instruction.

District officials were provided training on the Instructional Leadership Team model and continue to implement these strategies as they learn more about the impact teachers have on student learning.

“If anything, this school year has taught us the importance of agility and resilience. Our teachers are committed. Our kids are strong,” said Dr. Norma Gerrell, PSSD director of schools.

“Leveraging this additional support and resources, they have continued to push forward and achieve even through these most trying times.

“In Paris Special School District, we have chosen to thrive, not just survive through the COVID-19 crisis,” she said.

“We are thankful for our partnership with the Ayers Foundation and the entire TRAIN network for supporting our leadership to continue learning and leading in the face of extreme change.”

In addition to Henry County and PSSD schools, the TRAIN network includes all five districts supported by The Ayers Foundation Scholars Program in Decatur, Henderson, Lawrence, Perry and Unicoi County schools.

It also includes eight other districts selected to advance the Ayers Foundation and Gov. Bill Lee’s efforts to support more students living in rural Tennessee: Benton, Chester, Gibson SSD, Hardin, Haywood, Hickman, Lauderdale and Wayne County schools.

Of the 15 TRAIN districts, eight are considered by the Appalachian Regional Commission to be located in economically distressed or at-risk counties.

“To help make sure students were successful, we wanted educators to be ready for a variety of scenarios and to help teachers strengthen instruction — regardless of how many times they were shifting between in-person or virtual teaching,” said Dr. Candice McQueen, CEO of NIET.

“It has been a pleasure working with so many outstanding districts and leaders. It is gratifying to see district leaders use the network to share information, resources and strategies to support so many educators and students. ”

“By working together, these districts were better able to address challenges each were struggling with independently,” said Dr. Sharon Roberts, chief K-12 impact officer at SCORE.

“While their challenges initially focused on broadband access and teaching and learning virtually, districts quickly saw how they could use new tools, networks and collaborative opportunities throughout the year.”

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