Press Release

New study examines rural-virtual school partnerships in the wake of COVID-19

Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania – Nationwide

As states, schools and districts work to develop more flexible learning models in the wake of COVID-19, C4RI’s research team examines the ways that state virtual schools can partner effectively with K-12 schools and districts to support improved outcomes.  In today’s educational landscape, access to digital technology is essential to full participation in opportunities for academic success as well as preparedness for college and careers. Improving digital learning opportunities in K-12 settings can increase access to high quality educational experiences and contribute to narrowing the achievement gap. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt K-12 education as we know it, state virtual schools have been increasingly tapped by the US Department of Education and their own state governments to provide guidance, expanded course access, and professional expertise to schools and districts.

Currently, 21 states as diverse as Nevada, Michigan, Idaho, Colorado, Virginia, and Georgia have virtual school programs, Collectively, these state-supported learning systems serve over 420,000 students and accounted for over one million course enrollments in the 2017-18 school year (Digital Learning Collaborative, Snapshot 2020, p. 19). State-level leaders are seeking to prioritize funding for proven, effective strategies to increase student success in K-12 digital learning programs.

Relationship Between State Virtual Schools and Rural Districts

According to Elizabeth LeBlanc, co-founder with Dr. Christopher Harrington of the i4tl Center for Research and Innovation, “The way that federal funding has been allocated during the COVID-19 pandemic – particularly the calculation of each state’s coronavirus burden which uses rurality as a measure – makes it clear that at a national level, we are prioritizing rural areas as well as others that have been disproportionately impacted by the virus and also that state virtual schools and existing digital learning programs are being seen as a solution that can be scaled quickly to help address growing learning gaps. What this project hopes to accomplish by looking at highly effective rural-virtual partnerships is to identify best practices that can be quickly adopted and scaled for increased impact.”

Partnering with a state virtual school can help rural schools and districts address a host of issues, ranging from overall declining enrollments due to decreased rural population over time; higher transportation-to-instruction costs; relatively high rates of student mobility compared to their more urban counterparts; difficulty providing high-quality professional learning and expertise; obstacles in building teacher capacity for advanced, STEM, and/or specialty elective courses; and the need to expand the catalog of classes available in a rural area. Examples of the potential impact of state virtual schools on rural education include:

  • Virtual Arkansas’ engagement with rural students means that over 74% of their enrollments support small schools serving 500 or fewer students
  • Virtual Virginia’s Summer Session offerings helps rural areas accommodate summer staffing shortages
  • Michigan Virtual served over 8,000 rural course enrollments across 160 district during the 2018-19 school year
  • Idaho Digital Learning Alliance offers rural students the opportunity to take online courses – over 40% of these are courses to which students would not have access in their local settings

Because small, rural schools and districts are more likely to use a higher proportion of online courses, the reach of virtual schools and the impact that they have for rural students can be greater than in larger urban and suburban districts (Digital Learning Collaborative Snapshot 2020, p. 18). Not only are fewer courses available to rural students, but the courses that are lacking are most commonly Advanced Placement, honors, world languages, and advanced STEM classes—precisely the types of classes correlating most strongly with college success. Thus, state virtual schools are poised to have outsized impact on rural education on a variety of indicators.

Rationale for Study

Some of the criticisms leveled against state virtual schools are based on students’ relatively low pass rate and course completion rates nationally as compared to completion and pass rates in face-to-face settings. Research from Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, for instance, found that while Michigan’s overall pass rate for statewide virtual course enrollments - provided by many local school districts and course providers - was 55%, nearly half of the virtual learners passed every course they took. More importantly, perhaps, the report also noted that these highly successful students came from schools whose programming clearly supported virtual learning to a larger degree than other schools and districts with lower pass and completion rates: twenty-five percent of schools with virtual learning had virtual pass rates of 90% to 100%, according to Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report 2018-19. Increasingly, state virtual schools and their partner districts are finding ways to “lean in” to support students. Because of the great potential for distance learning to positively impact rural education settings, there is a need to clearly identify the common characteristics of effective partnership models between state virtual schools serving as course providers and their school and district partners on-the-ground.

Key Research Questions

This research project is designed to identify and evaluate 10 highly successful partnerships between a state virtual school and a corresponding rural school or district. The research team is examining these partnerships with an eye towards the collection of data that can highlight program successes across the nation, illuminate areas of challenge or where the obstacles were overcome, and ultimately scale the lessons learned to state leaders to influence the strategic design and continuation of future programs that support digital learning as well as to district and school leaders in rural settings seeking support for their staff and students. Therefore, the core research questions for this project are:

  • What models exist for partnership between state virtual schools and rural schools or districts?
  • What metrics are being used to determine program success within the various partnership models?
  • What best practices from successful K-12 district and state virtual school partnerships can be scaled to other state-level entities, regional units, and other schools or districts involved in the same work?

The project is advised by an Advisory Council that meets with the research team monthly to guide and give input on the project.

Advisory Council Members and Affiliate Organizations:
Cindy Hamblin, Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance (VLLA)
Judy Perez, iLearn Collaborative
Amy Valentine, Future of Schools
Allen Pratt, National Rural Education Association (NREA)
Christine Fox, State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA)


The i4tl Center for Research and Innovation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to accelerating change across K-12 learning communities. C4RI provides knowledge and services to children and adults through education-related research with the aim of accelerating innovation across schools and communities, creating an evidence-based foundation for growth. The organization’s agenda has three main focus areas to the work we support: bridging the gap between education research and practitioners in the field, increasing digital literacy and equity, and improving outcomes in rural educational settings. The i4tl Center for Research and Innovation research team evaluates programs with an eye towards the collection of strategic data that can highlight program successes as well as illuminating areas of challenge. Find out more about services, projects and partnerships at

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