National Rural Education Association
The Voice of Rural Schools and Communities

Blog Post

Reimagining Rural in Ohio: Graham’s Career Gears

Ohio Small and Rural Collaborative:
Dr. Kirk Koennecke
Reimagining Rural in Ohio: Graham’s Career Gears

A small, rural Ohio school district is turning community engagement norms on their head to pioneer a new vision of school transformation.

Rethinking Rural

To residents of Champaign County, Ohio, Graham Local Schools was a district that appeared to be introverted and inert. For years, the district languished within itself, not part of a broader community where most of the students would live and work after graduation. Students were missing opportunities to obtain an education that was career relevant and future ready. The team was failing to understand the skills employers sought in tomorrow’s job candidates and struggled to incorporate them into instruction. Fortunately, new leaders would see how unfair the district’s historic introversion had been, not only to students and staff, but also to the community. Instead, they would lead a revitalized team through a rethinking of what it means to be an organization in a larger community and county, and inspire thousands of people along the way.

Graham is a small, rural school district in Champaign County, serving 1980 students in a county of 40,000. After graduation, 70% of GLS’s students stay in the area. In such a small community, a positive relationship between the school district and its businesses is paramount. For a low performing district, there was a sense that it needed to change, not only for the benefit of students, but for the benefit of teachers, too. There was also a perception that Graham was not sufficiently preparing students for the careers that awaited them.

In the spring of 2016, the local board of education launched a superintendent search. They knew that the ideal candidate would need to lead the district through reforms and work swiftly to build relationships with the local community to improve the schools. This person would need to have a firm grasp on what it takes to make students future ready, build a brand, and get a team in place to achieve broad and varied improvements. Kirk Koennecke, hired in April 2016, brought a message of intentional, routine, and consistent pace of change to match the needs the community developed throughout a five-month strategic planning process. Graham 2020 was born.

Innovating

In a short amount of time, the board, the superintendent, and his team made significant and sweeping changes that have plotted a new course for the district. Graham is now on a path to becoming “Future Ready” for students for years to come. Across all schools, they have conceived and implemented innovations big and small. Perhaps the most important innovation is their connection with the community. The district created Career Gears, a formal system of career and college readiness designed to ensure that every student is exploring careers he or she might choose. 

Graham’s Board created two model policies, one for service learning and one for job shadowing, that impact all students K-12. These policies sent a signal to the community about Graham’s focus. For each grade level, there are annual goals, actions, time requirements, and pathways to define how students in that grade will fulfill their Career Gears learning. Career Gears would be impossible without members of the community offering time, shaping programs, and mentoring students. Partners have opened up their workspaces and companies to students and take pride in helping them. Koennecke knows such enthusiasm and gifts of time are due to the district’s outreach and desire to build relations. He also knows that repaying the community for their efforts through openness with their own resources and wisdom is required.

Koennecke demands community outreach and relationships as non-negotiables. The team has done this, in large part, by rethinking their role in community. His team has managed to create a dynamic where the relationship between district and community is mutually beneficial, where members of the community come to the schools for guidance and share ideas for learning and collaboration.

Reimagining Partnerships

Leaders discovered a valuable insight, that they could share practices of design thinking and strategic planning for others. Growth mindset is considered a must have for everyone in the schools. The district began doing research about growth mindset and nurturing that in people. When leadership would dialogue with community members, they would reference the district’s growth mindset curriculum. Business leaders would ask questions. Soon, members of GLS’ team were holding sessions with community members to guide them through growth mindset curriculum. Koennecke saw an incredible opportunity to give back to those who’d begun to help them improve the learning opportunities for students. He saw an opportunity to share wisdom with those who could also benefit. Graham staff positioned itself in the community as an organization that cares not just about how students perform, but how they succeed after school as employees. Team members discovered that many local companies had never created and implemented a strategic plan of their own. GLS leaders have stepped in to offer guidance to organizations about building a strategy and managing its execution. 

The result has been remarkable. Members of the community now call them to share ideas and offer to collaborate with students. This investment has paid them back in many ways. Nearly three years after the district first opened the conversation with the community, Koennecke credits a progressive board and staff with helping push the district into true reform. Career Gears has been a game-changing opportunity for students to gain hands-on, career-relevant learning. The school issues signs to organizations and companies that are Career Gears partners. Many businesses in the community proudly showcase their Career Gears partner sign in their offices. This prompts inquiry. The school showcases their partners’ in their schools, and through a robust social media presence. 

Impact

Graham has achieved incredible innovation on a shoestring budget. Koennecke believes they are only getting started. He credits staff for such rapid improvement through consistent encouragement from leadership to take risks. Leaders understand that rapid change requires rapid trial and error, and requires the staff have room to take risks, fail, and move on. The superintendent repeatedly seeks to empower leaders, emphasizing that they not get caught up in evaluations and test scores, but instead focus on what is really important, what’s best for students.

Koennecke points to qualitative signals that students are growing future ready, such as Ted Talk performances and Google Certifications. His team is defining hard and soft measures to ascertain the future-read abilities students need. This is hard work, and yet one more reason GLS has changed who they are, how they work, and how they are viewed.