From Red Balloons to Rural Outreach


Jacksonville State University’s Red Balloon Project Leads to $12 million i-3 CORE Grant

Like all public education institutions in Alabama, Jacksonville State University relies heavily on sales tax for its state appropriations and operating budget. In the recent recession the university was hit hard, and further challenged by mid-year prorations requiring further cuts. “With dwindling budgets and declining enrollments we had to find a way to break out of the pack,” said Dr. Alicia Simmons, executive director for Planning and Research, and the Institute for Research and Collaboration.

Red Balloons

While some may have been daunted, the leadership at Jacksonville State University (JSU) was inspired by the work of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), Red Balloon Project, calling upon colleges and universities to work collaboratively to reimagine undergraduate education nationwide. Jacksonville State University decided to launch its own Red Balloon Initiative, calling upon all members of the university and community at large to come together to conceptualize what it would take for JSU to truly become a learning centered university, working with the limited resources they had within their community to improve college readiness and successful completion in Alabama.

Two weeks ago, their work was rewarded by an announcement from the U.S. Department of Education that they were among the twenty-five “highest rated i3 applicants,” set to receive $12 million queued for allocation to JSU in the Validation Category from the $135 million total funding in the Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation Competition, pending the receipt of a percentage in public and private matching funds and final paperwork. On December 20, they received word they had received the necessary matching funds and qualified for the $12 million.

“Looking back on this work, it wasn’t a small goal we started with,” said Simmons. “We were so inspired by the work of George L. Mehaffy, Vice President for Academic Leadership and Change at AASCU , that we decided to vision big, despite having no budget for implementation,” she recalls. “We gathered thirty groups on our campus to collaboratively brainstorm and strategize. We integrated responses to common questions about a learning-centered campus from these groups into a really solid strategic plan and then started looking for like-minded partners who wanted to make it happen with us.”

Personalized Learning Through Collaborative Expanded Technology

One of JSU’s first strategies was to expand technology into campus classrooms to better engage and prepare graduates for 21st century teaching. “Our College of Education is deeply committed to our communities’ rural schools, and preparing our future teachers in technology use and project-based learning, which enhances their opportunities to share this knowledge in the K-12 environment,” said Simmons.

Meanwhile, nearby Piedmont City Schools (PCS) had recently launched a 1:1 MacBook program for 4th – 12th grade. Their superintendent met with the JSU president and the power of collaboration took hold. “Piedmont City Schools invited us out to Apple headquarters as a full partner,” said Simmons. “We defined our partnership by implementing research-based practices aimed at supporting change throughout the entire system.” According to the grant, JSU believed improving learning in a classroom is good, but supporting whole system change management is necessary for sustainability. JSU and PCS engaged in professional development, including challenge-based workshops teaching methods offered by Apple. The university established learning communities that brought together JSU faculty and administrators, PCS teachers and administrators, members of the business community and JSU education students to develop and support change management strategies.

Word of the partnerships spread and school districts came knocking. Soon JSU was working with multiple school districts, moving forward with the vision despite a need for additional funds to really scale. “There was no reason for any of us to do this work in isolation,” says Simmons. “We ultimately formed an alliance of eighteen public school districts and began work on a logic model to support a grant request. We repositioned a small team of staff in our Institute for Research and Collaboration to focus on this initiative and explore federal funding.”

Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) – U.S. Department of Education

Outcomes from that work ultimately resulted in the application for the i3 Fund under the CORE Grant – Collaborative Regional Education (CORE) Comprehensive Model: Technology in Rural Classrooms. The program provides teachers with professional development that prepares them to use technology as a tool to support individualized learning despite limited access to wireless and broadband in many regions. The i3 grant will fund the CORE program for five years, improving college and work readiness among 8th-12th graders in eighteen high need rural school districts. In Phase I the program will serve more than 11,000 students annually. Working with private sector partners, JSU will expand the program’s reach to additional schools in Phase II.  ICF International, a leader in rural education research, will serve as evaluator of the project.

“Through collaboration, this project supports teacher networking, sharing of lesson plans and learning objects, and leveraging school system dollars through partnerships with external learning management systems, curriculum, publishing and technology partners,” says Simmons. The system allows school districts to reallocate funds saved by the collaboration to purchase necessary technology in a sustainable model for permanent change.

Engaged Communities through Collaboration

“By validating our CORE model, our university can provide an ecosystem that empowers schools to leverage their partnerships, gain professional development for their teachers, network around best practices, and ultimately increase successful student outcomes.” According to Simmons it’s also created a deeply engaged, highly collaborative JSU campus community.

Jacksonville State University has recently joined Civitas Learning as a partner. “We are so happy to be partners with Civitas Learning,” said Simmons. “We are excited to be working with organizations that have the same world view as we do. We can do anything if we work together.”

Alicia Simmons headshot

Alicia Simmons

Alicia Simmons is Executive Director for Planning and Research and the Institute for Research and Collaboration at Jacksonville State University in northeast Alabama.

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