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Developing Community Partnerships in Rural Communities

Image of teacher and students in classroom busy at work

Amillia K.  Oswalt
University of Arkansas

Vignette: Mrs. Jones is working with her high school students in a small town in Arkansas. She has read the research that says students with disabilities have more significant and positive secondary outcomes when they participate in paid work experiences before high school graduation. She wants her students to participate in both paid and unpaid employment opportunities before they leave high school, but she is unsure how to develop partnerships within her local community businesses to achieve her goal.


In 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) required that all students have a coordinated set of activities that are designed using an outcome-based process. Part of this transition process can, and should, include teaching students the skills that they will need to be successful within their communities. Skills focused on preparing students for future work and education, independent living, and community engagement might include work readiness, communication, purchasing, ordering, shopping, banking, and participating in or attending local social and sporting events. Despite the addition of transition-focused skill attainment to IDEA and research identifying predictors for effective transition, students post high school are still not meeting their and their IEP team’s goals for them (Trainor et al., 2020). Young adults continue to not be employed to the extent they wish for themselves.

The National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth (NCWD) identified the values gained by paid and unpaid work experiences for students with disabilities. The most considerable benefits to students include youth with disabilities receiving higher paying jobs after high school graduation and participating in competitive employment at a higher rate than their peers who have no work experience (U.S. Department of Education, 2020). Teachers are aware of the benefits of providing work experiences to students while still in high school. Collet-Klingenberg and Kolb (2011) found teachers recognize that employment is an essential part of transition planning but struggle to implement employment-specific instruction. Building partnerships with businesses within their communities is one way that teachers can facilitate authentic work experiences for students with special needs.

Rural and small urban cluster areas face unique challenges and opportunities for building community partnerships. Markeve et al. (1992) identified several challenges faced by rural communities. Transportation is often the most significant obstacle rural school districts face when trying to build community partnerships because the distance inherent in rural communities often requires traveling long distances. Another challenge identified is limited economic diversity. In many rural areas, agriculture is the central area of employment (United States Census Bureau, n.d). Heavy dependence on agriculture limits the number and variety of jobs available to students within the region. The third identified challenge faced by rural districts is that they live in areas of low population density. Fewer people means a lower tax base to fund educational programs. For teachers wanting to create employment opportunities for students, a limited budget affects both the number of trips students are allowed to take off the school campus and the support teachers have to teach life skills and other vital transition-related skills.

Despite these identified challenges, rural communities have opportunities as well (Elrod et al., 1994). It may be easier to identify resources in a rural community. Unlike teachers in urban regions with multiple schools for children to attend, there is typically only one school district for students to attend in rural areas thus making the school community and its resources clear. Rural areas also have less formal political structures. Elected officials are more easily accessible and often have more meetings available to the public than their urban counterparts. It is easier to get to know local business owners and managers in rural areas, and these businesses are more likely to be deeply invested in the community. Further, rural communities tend to value hands-on work. The plan for developing community partnerships notes these challenges and opportunities and provides teachers a step-by-step process to support their goals based on research (Alleman & Holly, 2018; Markeve et al., 1992; Elrod et al.; 1994; Harmon, 2017)


Steps for Developing Community Partnerships

  1. Identify your communities' unique supports and challenges: During your planning phase, it is essential to identify the supports available within your community. It is also imperative to identify the challenges that will impact your ability to develop partnerships within the community. For example, identify leaders in your community, advocates for people with disabilities, transportation barriers and effective workarounds, and young adults with disabilities and their families who are successful.
  2.  Meet with Local School Officials: After identifying advantages and challenges, schedule a meeting with your local school officials. As a teacher, you need to meet with the superintendent, school principal, and special education director to outline your plans and get their approval. They can also assist you by providing business names with whom the school district has established partnerships. School leaders can also assist in providing funds or solutions for transportation issues to and from local community businesses.
  3.  Collaborate with local business owners and managers and the local Chamber of Commerce: When looking to establish partnerships with local businesses within your community, it is critical to set up appointments to meet with business owners and managers to discuss your program and how it will benefit their business. Businesses can participate in collaborative partnerships with schools in many ways, and it is crucial to identify the ways that are the best fit for each company. The Chamber of Commerce can provide information regarding your program to its members and facilitate the development of partnerships between local businesses and the high school.
  4.  Promote your Program: For many, program promotion can be the most challenging part of this process. There are countless ways that you can promote your program. Contact your local media. Talk about your program wherever you go, especially in well-respected businesses. Create a brochure explaining your program's benefits and providing contact information to distribute. Most importantly, get the word out into your community and highlight the program's successes and advantages for both students and employers.



Rural areas offer unique challenges and opportunities for schools wanting to implement community partnerships. By identifying their particular community’s opportunities and challenges and by designing programming that will fit their students’ specific needs, schools can create meaningful and long-lasting partnerships with businesses within their communities. Partnership development will benefit students and the community.



Alleman, N. F., & Holly, N. L. (2018). Multiple points of contact: Promoting rural postsecondary preparation through school-community partnerships. The Rural Educator, 34(2).

Collet-Klingenberg, L. L., & Kolb, S. M. (2011). Secondary and transition programming for 18-21 year old students in rural Wisconsin. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 30(2), 19–27.

Elrod, G. F., Devlin, S. D., & Obringer, S. J. (1994). Rural school-community partnerships: “We take care of our own!" Rural Special Education Quarterly, 13(1), 46–50.

Harmon, H. L. (2018). Collaboration: A partnership solution in rural education. The Rural Educator, 38(1).

Markeve, R., Morris, R., Ferrara, J., & Rudrud, E. (1992). The entrepreneurial model of supported employment. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 11(3), 14–19.

Trainor, A. A., Carter, E. W., Karpur, A., Martin, J. E., Mazzotti, V. L., Morningstar, M. E.,           Newman, L., & Rojewski, J. W. (2020). A framework for research in transition:         Identifying important areas and intersections for future study. Career Development and               Transition for Exceptional Individuals43(1), 5-17.

U.S. Department of Education (Department) Office of Special Education and                                     Rehabilitation Services. (2020). A Transition Guide to Postsecondary Education and             Employment for Students and Youth with Disabilities. Washington, D.C.

United States Census Bureau (n.d.). Rural America.

Posted:  19 March, 2021
Author: Amillia K. Oswalt

University of Arkansas

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