19 Appalachian districts form one powerful cooperative. Small districts: take notice.

cooperative-togetherIt’s been 40 years since a group of 10 school districts across southeastern Kentucky banded together to gain economies of scale when purchasing goods and services. Calling themselves the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC), the pioneering group probably had no idea that their early efforts would eventually parlay into an initiative that’s largely focused on helping rural Kentucky schools gain access to technology and use it successfully in the educational setting.

“Initially, KVEC was formed to help schools more easily and efficiently purchase supplies and services (i.e., driver’s education),” says Dessie Bowling, associate director for the Hazard, Ken.-based cooperative. During the last four decades, that focus has shifted and now aligns with Kentucky’s overall goal of staying on the leading edge of both classroom technology and IT infrastructure management.

“Over the last five years, our state has done a very good job of leading the rest of the country in its approach to K-12 education and the use of technology,” points out Jeff Hawkins, KVEC’s executive director. Collectively, “our use of technology has really blossomed, because we realize that that is the way to increase curricular and learning opportunities for students.”

Next page: How to govern the cooperative

Racing to the top

In 2014, KVEC received a $30 million, four-year Race to the Top grant that’s being use to increase opportunities for students and develop blended learning initiatives across the group’s 19 public school districts. “All of our districts have been moving toward using technology more effectively, and especially in using technology in a personalized and concentrated manner,” says Hawkins. So far, the grant has been used to place “innovation coordinators” in every district (the grant doesn’t pay the coordinator’s salary, the district does), purchase equipment (like 70-inch, interactive Mondopads), rollout software (like the career and workplace skills program WIN Math), and support one-to-one initiatives.

Bowling and Hawkins see the KVEC model as particularly useful in rural areas of the nation, where geographic isolation impacts everything—such as teacher availability, the build-out of technology infrastructure, and collaboration with other institutions.

“Just in terms of internet access alone, our districts run into issues trying to make sure everyone has that kind of access outside of the school setting,” says Bowling. “This is an especially important point as we try to create learning environments that extend past the school walls and that can be accessed 24/7.”

Getting 19 districts on the same page can be as difficult as it sounds, said Hawkins, and the decision on whether to use their purchasing power for Apple or Windows laptops has been an ongoing challenge.

“Some districts really believe strongly in using a Windows-based application and some districts may believe strongly in using an Apple-based application,” Hawkins explains. “We try to make sure that our purchasing selections focus on all solutions—as much as possible—while also offering multiple solutions and opportunities.”

When making those decisions, KVEC turns to the 19 superintendents (one from each member district) that comprise its board of directors. “The board makes the decisions and charts the direction,” says Bowling, “on everything from special education and reading recovery to procurement and leadership development.” On the technology front, KVEC strives to make “technology accessible and data transparent,” says Bowling, who points to the group’s new learning portal as one example of how it’s using a social learning networking to engage school and community members.

Next page: Repeating the model elsewhere

Known as Holler, the site was established to open technology and learning conversation in the Central Appalachian region, as well as to serve as a delivery tool for open coursework and learning initiatives. The site is split into two sections; a social network designed for sharing creative and educational endeavors, and self-paced, regional online courses.

A replicable model

Right now, KVEC’s member districts are pushing toward a one-to-one environment, with some already in the process and others still in planning stages. “As we work with districts through our Race to the Top award,” said Hawkins, “we’re able to provide each district with a little seed money every year that helps them choose a one-to-one device and develop a one-to-one philosophy.”

In assessing the feasibility of KVEC’s model for school districts in other states, both Hawkins and Bowling say the concept is “highly replicable.” In fact, the cooperative has contracted with RAND Corp. (to serve as its evaluator) to document the process of “sustainable system change that we’re engaged so that we can share with other parts of the state and/or country what we’re doing and how it’s working,” said Hawkins. “And, if anything didn’t work, we want to be able to share that too.”

Bowling sees online platforms like Holler as another way for other districts to learn about KVEC’s activities and better understand how its initiative operates. “Ultimately, we hope and believe that what we’re doing is replicable, particularly for rural districts, which are different than those located in urban or suburban settings,” says Bowling. “We’re not any better or worse off, but we do have a different set of challenges to contend with, particularly when it comes to technology.”

Bridget McCrea is a contributing writer for eSchool News.