Network, Fellowships Established for Rural Libraries

Partners for Education at Berea College and Save the Children US are part of a rural libraries initiative to improve educational outcomes, specifically third grade reading.

Rural libraries face unique challenges: limited budgets and staff, communities that cover a large area with varied needs, lack of time to seek out opportunities for funding or information for policy changes, and no broad support network or consistent source for professional development.

To help rural librarians meet these challenges, Partners for Education at Berea College and Save the Children US partnered to create the Rural Libraries Network. The “cradle to career” initiative aims to give librarians professional development and added capacity to focus on helping students meet third grade reading levels.

Nationally, less than 40 percent of rural public school students meet reading achievement levels by fourth grade, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Examining other factors such as poverty, family education, rurality, ethnicity, and race reveals larger gaps.

The Partners for Education rural libraries initiative—which has been supported by an IMLS grant and includes the network, a summit, and fellowships—aims to center public libraries in the literacy battle and support the librarians doing the work.

“Rural libraries are critical to moving educational outcomes in rural places,” says Dreama Gentry, executive director of Partners for Education.

“We started thinking, what would it look like if we connected a network of rural libraries together in this virtual world...It is all focused on rural libraries [and] accelerating educational outcomes, cradle to career.”


Rural Libraries Network

The Rural Libraries Network, which is free to join, ­offers monthly Conversations for ­Action—webinars that discuss issues ­impacting the libraries and offer resources and solutions.

“Rural libraries are under-resourced,” says Lesley Graham, senior director of community impact at Save the Children US. “You potentially have one person that’s wearing all the hats, right? And so how could you possibly know about opportunities and whatnot, when you’re just trying to juggle it all?”

The network aims to create an easily accessible central point for information about policy, programming, and funding for those who are too busy in the ­day-to-day details of their jobs to have time to research new programs or chase down opportunities.

School librarians can also be part of the network.

“In some of our rural communities, there isn’t a public library,” says Gentry. “The school library plays multiple roles. They play the role of supporting the children within their building as a school library, but they’re also supporting that expanded role of being a community asset. So we’re seeing that, too, as far as school librarians benefiting absolutely from the network, because there isn’t a public library presence.

“I think we’re also seeing how school librarians can step outside their role. They’re being very inventive about opening their doors to families outside of school hours, supporting virtual learning, or providing summer learning opportunities.”

Partners for Education and Save the Children US also hosted their first Rural Libraries Summit in December. The comments and discussions from that event helped inform the topics of the monthly webinars.

“COVID has taught us that we can connect and learn together in a virtual environment,” says Gentry. “I think that’s wonderful, because we’re expecting young people to do it and learners to do it, so for us as professionals to ­actually step into it—it’s powerful.”

Partners for Education has worked with rural libraries in Appalachia for years, focusing on three types of capacity building: funding, partnership building, and data and evaluation. For example, in Corbin, KY, it helped the local library develop a stronger grant proposal by deepening the staff’s understanding of the requirements of ­requests for proposals. The group shares best practices for building relationships with community partners and shows its library partners how to use qualitative and quantitative data to ­support their work and engage in ­continuous improvement.

With experience helping in Appalachia, Gentry realized rural libraries across the country have the same challenges, value as a community hub, and ability to impact education outcomes if properly supported.

Gentry and Graham wanted to create a way to best facilitate rural librarians sharing ideas with each other, finding colleagues who offer support and solutions and act as sounding boards. The pandemic only drove home that desire to reach out to others rather than work in isolation.

“People are eager to connect; they’re hungry to connect with others, albeit virtually, right now,” says Graham.

COVID also created an urgency to innovate and build partnerships.

“We’re seeing this kind of all-hands-on-deck approach,” says Graham.

The pandemic has pushed local staff and organizations to “really reimagine their roles” and do more for the children and families in the community, she says, adding that libraries are offering meals to families and creating more programming and strategies around social-emotional connection and skills.

“The other piece the pandemic has highlighted is the need for partnership,” says Graham. “We’ve seen people coming together more and more and recognizing just how critical the role of partnership is to impacting the lives of children. To be sustainable [and] to support children over the long term, we have to see community come together.”


Fellowships focused on third grade reading outcomes

Members of the network were able to apply for a two-year fellowship, focused on increasing third grade reading outcomes. Partners for Education received more than 60 applications, which are being reviewed to decide who to interview for the 22 spots, which are for public librarians only.

“We know that there's a harder push and more support needed for public libraries to step into that collective impact, convening folks and working toward that third grade reading in their communities,” says Gentry. “So the fellowship is specifically for public libraries and those that work in public libraries.”

School librarians contributed to the creation of the program, though. It was designed out of a planning grant from IMLS that engaged school librarians, higher ed librarians, and public librarians in a year-long planning process, “to really uncover what is needed for libraries to be engaged and supported in cradle-to-career.

"We know from our work in Appalachia, school libraries are critical," says Gentry. "And we had that school library voice in the planning piece."

Those selected for the fellowship will receive: professional development to support increasing reading outcomes; connection with a peer learning community; a stipend to offset time, materials or other costs associated with participation; full cost scholarship for travel expenses to attend any in-person leadership development opportunities; and a $5,000 award to implement strategies for increasing grade level reading.

“The rural library initiative—whether it be the network, the fellowship, or the summit—is really a way to support [library] leaders,” says Gentry. “And to create that network of support and services [to] ensure that children in rural areas have access to high quality programs and services.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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