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Georgia State School Superintendent Richard Woods recently announced the establishment of a new Office of Rural Education and Innovation at the state Department of Education. The office is intended to provide a continued, cabinet-level voice for the needs of rural Georgians and their communities in K-12 education policy, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It is a top priority of my administration to strengthen and bring greater opportunities and economic prosperity to rural Georgia," Gov. Brian Kemp said. "The Georgia Department of Education's new Office of Rural Education and Innovation will support those efforts to renew and revitalize rural Georgia and ensure our state remains the best place to live, work, and raise a family."

Established using federal stimulus funds, the office will work to address the needs of rural Georgians and their schools by focusing on improved connectivity; teacher retention and recruitment; resources and funding; and educator development. It also will establish state and community partnerships to channel resources and identify funding opportunities within the Department of Education to support the state's most rural areas.

Dr. Bronwyn Ragan-Martin, who has more than 31 years of education experience in Georgia, has been tapped to lead the new office as deputy superintendent for rural education and innovation beginning in October. Ragan-Martin most recently served as superintendent of the Early County school system, a district with about 2,000 students and 300 employees in Southwest Georgia, and as president of the Georgia School Superintendents Association from 2019 to 2021. Before that, she was the system's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction and coordinated human resources, gifted education and leadership development.

Ragan-Martin holds a bachelor's degree in English from Mount Holyoke College, a master's in English education from Georgia Southwestern College and an Ed.D. in curriculum and instruction from Valdosta State University.

In addition, Ragan-Martin served on the Georgia School Boards Association Rural Task Force from 2018 to 2020.

"Our rural schools and districts face unique challenges and resource gaps – and many of those challenges have only intensified due to the pandemic," Woods said. "That's something I understand personally, as a former teacher and administrator in a rural Georgia school district. There is also, though, an opportunity for a transformational investment in rural Georgia that could change the lives of children and the course of their communities. That's what I'm tasking our new Office of Rural Education and Innovation with working toward."

Woods said he is "thrilled Dr. Ragan-Martin has agreed to lead this work. Her experience, commitment, and deep roots in rural Georgia make her the perfect fit for this role."

The task force released a report last year that identified health care, school funding, teacher recruitment and retention, and early learning as the four main issues facing rural Georgians and education. Recommendations outlined in the report include providing WiFi capabilities on school buses to serve as community hotspots in areas now lacking internet connectivity; exploring the use of telemedicine to care for rural residents who may not have transportation or face another barrier limiting their ability to see a health care provider; providing more funding to schools to cover the increased cost of sick leave caused by the pandemic; offering financial assistance targeted to special education and STEM teachers, including loan forgiveness and cost of living stipends; and allowing retired teachers to return to the classrooms in rural public schools without penalty to their retirement benefits.

While the Office of Rural Education and Innovation may not move forward with all recommendations in the report, it is expected to serve as a starting point for much of its future work.

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.

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