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Support Systems for Increasing Rural College Access

REL Midwest hosted a one-hour public television event designed to help increase the knowledge base in Wisconsin and other REL Midwest states on strategies that rural high schools, local colleges, and community programs can use to improve rural students’ access to two-year colleges, four-year colleges, and other postsecondary education.

This event featured Hobart L. Harmon, Ph.D., Co-director of the Rural Math Excel Partnership. Dr. Hobart drew from the findings from the IES Practice Guide Helping Students Navigate the Path to College and described his own research on creating rural educational systems and the ways that educational service agencies can support the work of rural schools.

The event also featured a panel discussion that highlighted the experiences of Wisconsin’s education providers in implementing postsecondary education support systems to improve rural high school student’s access to postsecondary education opportunities. After the taping of the broadcast, audience members had the opportunity to engage in a discussion with the presenters. 


Hobart Harmon, Ph.D., is a nationally recognized rural research expert who specializes in the systems and conditions necessary to create systems to support rural students. Dr. Harmon is currently co-director of the i3 Grant Rural Math Excel Partnership and has served as a consultant for a 15-state U.S. Department of Education rural dropout prevention assistance project. Dr. Hobart expanded on the findings from the IES Helping Students Navigate the Path to College Practice Guide by describing his own research on creating rural educational systems and the ways that educational service agencies can support the work of their schools.

Jerry Fiene, is the executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, a statewide organization representing administrators, board of education members, teachers, and community leaders from rural school districts. The organization’s membership includes school districts, cooperative educational service agencies (CESAs), technical colleges, universities, businesses, and individuals with a vested interest in strengthening rural schools and communities. Jerry has worked on behalf of Wisconsin rural schools for the past 46 years as a teacher in northern Wisconsin, principal in western and central Wisconsin, superintendent in southwestern Wisconsin, and CESA administrator in north central Wisconsin.  He brings a deep understanding of the unique challenges facing rural school districts and communities. Mr. Fiene discussed the ways that Wisconsin’s rural schools and communities support students’ postsecondary ambitions.

Dawn Nordine, is the executive director of Wisconsin Virtual School (WVS), the state-led supplemental online program for Grades 6–12, operated out of CESA 9. Since 2000, WVS has provided online courses for more than 22,000 students. WVS is a collaborative partner in the legislated Wisconsin Digital Learning Collaborative, a strategic alliance between the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the Wisconsin eSchool Network, and WVS. The collaborative work of these entities connects school districts with the right path and right resources at the right time to implement digital learning initiatives and options for students. Ms. Nordine has been in the education field for 22 years. Formerly a superintendent and technology coordinator of a rural school district, Ms. Nordine has been actively involved in the expanding online learning opportunities for students in Wisconsin for 11 years. Ms. Nordine discussed alternative education options and how they prepare students for postsecondary education.

Sharon Wendt, is the director of Career and Technical Education at the Department of Public Instruction.  As director of the Career and Technical Education team she assists in the development and implementation of program policy and budget affecting career and technical education programs and services to enhance the educational, personal, career and social development of public school students in Wisconsin. Ms. Wendt works with state and federal legislation, grants administration, and provides leadership support for district-wide collaboration, as well as for developing partnerships with employers and other community groups to better prepare students for all post-high school opportunities.  She supports the work of the State Superintendent’s Advisory Council on Rural Schools, Libraries, and Communities and serves as State Superintendent Tony Evers’ designee to the Wisconsin Technical College System Board. Ms. Wendt spoke to the ways in which the Department of Public Instruction supports the work of schools and districts in increasing rural postsecondary access.


Related Resources

Harmon, H. L., & Smith, K. C. (2012). Legacy of the rural systemic initiatives: Innovation, leadership, teacher development, and lessons learned. Charleston, WV: Edvantia. Retrieved from 

Harmon, H. L. (2011). Status of online professional development in educational service agencies of the United States: An exploratory study. Branford, CT: Association of Educational Service Agencies. Retrieved from

Meece, J. L., & Farmer, T. W. (2010). Rural high school aspirations study [Webpage].Retrieved from

National Research Center on Rural Education Support. (n.d.). Educational aspirations of rural adolescents. Chapel Hill, NC: Author. Retrieved from

National Research Center on Rural Education Support. (n.d.). Educational barriers of rural adolescents. Chapel Hill, NC: Author. Retrieved from

Tierney, W. G., Bailey, T., Constantine, J., Finkelstein, N., & Hurd, N. F. (2009). Helping students navigate the path to college: What high schools can do: A practice guide (NCEE No. 2009-4066). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from