Plymouth State Conference Examines the Advantages, Challenges, and Successes of Today’s Rural Schools

The Rural Educational Leaders Network (RELN) at Plymouth State University (PSU) hosted its fourth annual summit, “Developing the School and Community Partnership,” July 17–18, 2019. Sixty educational leaders from New Hampshire and across the nation gathered at PSU and discussed the successes and challenges of rural schools and communities, the “rural advantage,” and opportunities that give students hope. 

“You can’t have strong rural communities without strong public schools,” stated Dr. Gary Funk, executive director of RELN’s national partner, the Rural Schools Collaborative. RELN’s goal is to develop partnerships between schools and communities, which can contribute to community sustainability while providing rich learning experiences for students. 

“Through the partnership relationship, schools are able to support students in developing deeper relationships with their communities,” said PSU Educational Leadership Professor and RELN facilitator Linda Carrier. 

“We were fortunate to hear from widely recognized rural education speakers regarding communication, place-based education, building hope among students, and education funding challenges and their impact on rural schools,” said Carrier. “We’ve built a strong network and community of rural educational leaders in the state and this is a time to convene, learn, and plan for the year ahead.”

Dr. Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Educators Association, spoke about the successes and challenges of rural schools and communities. His primary focus is on the impact of rural schools and the role of instructional leaders at the district and building levels.

The ability to communicate the challenges and opportunities facing a rural school is one component of potential impact. Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach of the US Department of Education John White emphasized that telling the rural school’s story to local stakeholders has a profound impact on success. He promotes and protects the success of people and organizations educating youth and adults, and of those who do the important work of revitalizing communities.

Bringing students into focus, Wade Owlett, a fifth-grade teacher at Clark Wood Elementary School in Elkland, PA, and recipient of the Pennsylvania Rural Teacher of the Year and 2018 National Rural Teacher of the Year awards, spoke of successes and challenges of students in rural communities and on the concept of hope in his keynote address, “The Rural Advantage: How Rural Opportunities Give Students Hope.”

NateMcClennen, vice president for education and innovation at Teton Science Schools (TSS) in Jackson, WY, focused on connecting attendees with how to scale the impact of place-based education through technology, innovation, design learning, and school networks.

Closing out the summit, John Tobin Jr., Esq., former executive director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, overviewed New Hampshire’s complicated and inequitable school funding system.  Under New Hampshire’s Constitution, the state is responsible for ensuring that every child has the opportunity for an adequate education. “Tobin and his colleagues provide this presentation around the state,” noted Carrier, who can be contacted for further information.

The summit also featured a panel discussion of New Hampshire legislators that focused on working together to support our rural schools and communities. Panelists included Executive Councilor Michael Cryans (D-Hanover), Senator Bob Guida (R-Warren), Senator Jay Kahn (D-Keene), and Representative Ned Gordon (R-Bristol). “The panelists shared that legislators may not be hearing from enough of their constituents when it comes to issues regarding public education, and they encourage individuals to reach out to their representatives and senators to discuss their concerns,” said Carrier.

For more information about the Rural Educational Leaders Network, visit

The Rural Educational Leaders Network is a professional learning network for New Hampshire’s rural school and school district leaders. Membership includes over 100 rural school assistant principals, principals, curriculum directors, assistant superintendents, superintendents, and aspiring school leaders from Plymouth State’s Educational Leadership Graduate Programs. Members represent 36 SAUs. The network is made possible through an endowment by the late Anne Haggart.

About Plymouth State University: Established in 1871, Plymouth State University serves the state of New Hampshire and the world beyond by transforming our students through advanced practices where engaged learning produces well-educated undergraduates and by providing graduate education that deepens and advances knowledge and enhances professional development. With distinction, we connect with community and business partners for economic development, technological advances, healthier living, and cultural enrichment with a special commitment of service to the North Country and Lakes Region of New Hampshire. For more information about Plymouth State University visit