Some of Nation’s Finest Talk About Teaching in Rural America

When the White House recently celebrated the latest class of National Board Certified teachers, several of the honorees traveled to Washington from some of America’s most remote and distant rural communities to receive the teaching profession’s highest credential. During their visit, we caught up with these rural teachers to hear their stories about what it’s like to teach in rural America.

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These rural teachers describe challenges with funding, a lack of technology, and the need to elevate the teaching profession while expanding curriculum in order to prepare students for a 21st century economy.

Jenny Lovering, a history teacher at Columbia Falls High School in Montana near the Canadian border, addressed the “brain drain” that challenges many rural areas. Her goal is to prepare students for college and careers, so they are equipped to compete, return and rebuild their community. “I want to be able to help them to get to the places where they want to go, so they can come back. I want them to be able to bring in new industries and new ideas to revitalize this area that they love,” she said.

While in the nation’s capital, the new NBC teachers attended a White House forum held to recognize the importance of the teaching profession. Teachers shared their thoughts on their profession and how the Administration can help support educators to ensure that every student receives high-quality instruction. In addition to the forum, senior officials at the Department of Education engaged in a series of roundtables with the teachers to speak with them about strengthening the profession and to get their input on how to best develop teachers to become leaders in the classroom.

To keep the public informed about efforts to elevate the teaching profession, the Department has produced a “Plan to Reform Teacher Education.” Senior leaders in the Department continue to engage with teachers during school visits, at national and regional conferences, through new media like Twitter and Facebook, and through newsletters and the Web. We invite new ideas and more participants in this important conversation.

John White is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach

Teaming Up to Support Rural Community Colleges

It’s no secret that community colleges are leading the way to achieving the President’s goal for the United States to once again have the highest college attainment rate in the world by 2020. Community colleges are hubs for career-training, re-training, adult education and for recent high school graduates seeking a pathway into the careers of their choice.

Secretary Duncan, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and their agencies are working together to support community colleges as they provide postsecondary education and career training in rural areas. Photo courtesy of USDA.

For many residents of rural areas, community colleges also provide the closest access to postsecondary education and a way to obtain the skills needed for existing jobs.  However, like some of their students, many rural community colleges are doing more with less as state budgets are being cut and new resources are becoming harder to find.

During the 2011 rural community colleges conference in Oklahoma, many attendees asked about funding and resources available from the Department of Education but few were as familiar with opportunities in other federal agencies. Some rural community college administrators were unaware of the significant infrastructure of support available through their USDA Rural Development state and local offices.

As the American Jobs Act languishes in Congress, preventing an infusion of $5 billion for modernization from reaching community colleges, the U.S. Departments of Education and Agriculture are working together to guide campuses serving high-poverty rural communities to existing federal resources.

During a recent conference call with members of the Rural Community College Alliance and the American Association of Community Colleges, nearly 100 participants learned about USDA Rural Development programs and funding opportunities that can be used to improve facilities, support distance learning, and provide home ownership assistance as a recruitment and retention tool for faculty.

The USDA Community Facilities Program can be used for construction and renovation of classrooms and dormitories, and even to purchase transportation vehicles to serve campus facilities. The USDA Single Family Housing Programs provide homeownership opportunities to low- and moderate-income rural Americans through several loan, grant, and loan guarantee programs.

USDA Distance Learning and Telemedicine grants can cover the cost of equipment for video conferencing and other distance learning equipment. USDA’s Community Connect program provides grants to build broadband Internet infrastructure and establish community centers to offer free public access in rural areas where broadband service is least likely to be available, but where it can make a tremendous difference in the quality of life for citizens.

These are a few of the ways that USDA can support rural communities, and the Department of Education is working to increase awareness of how college leaders can access these opportunities.

John White is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach

Rural Recruits: College and Careers Available

Even in a remote rural community like Altus, Okla., there are clear connections between education and the economy.

Pilot Javier Orama

Captain Javier Orama

During a recent visit to the Air Education and Training Command at Altus Air Force Base, I was reminded of a question I hear occasionally: “Why should rural students go to college when there aren’t many jobs in their communities?” I often wonder how different these communities would be if more youth and adults pursued college and other postsecondary career training opportunities.

Nationally, rural students are less likely to go to college than their peers from urban and suburban areas. At the same time, many rural communities need skilled workers more than ever to fill existing jobs, to attract new employers, and to cultivate entrepreneurship as a means for reinventing their local economies.

Even rural youth considering joining the military will need to continue their education beyond high school.

Altus AFB prepares military personnel for a variety of careers. The Air Education and Training Command provides classroom instruction complemented by computer-based training, and individual tutoring for Airmen in a variety of fields. The base even developed a “grow-your-own” mechanics program.

After climbing inside the enormous C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft during my visit, Captain Javier Orama emphasized the demand for math and technology skills in today’s Air Force.

“The C-17 is a flying computer. In fact, it’s many different computers,” he said.

Captain Orama is a pilot and an instructor for pilots training to fly the C-17 on airlift and refueling missions. The C-17 is a flexible, high-tech aircraft that can refuel in-flight and continue its mission indefinitely. If you dream of flying like Captain Orama, you will need at least a bachelor’s degree. Officers are generally required to be college or university graduates. College and career-level training is also a prerequisite for loadmasters and mechanics supporting the C-17 missions.

More U.S. military personnel come from rural areas than any other parts of our nation. And like private industry, the armed services are also looking for a highly skilled workforce.

Rural young people and adults need access and encouragement to pursue postsecondary education and training programs to lift up their families and communities, and our nation needs them to aim high.

John White is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach

ED and USDA Promote the Value in Rural Partnerships

Land-grant university Cooperative Extension Services can be valuable partners for rural schools, particularly in distant and remote areas where other partnerships are hard to come by.

During a recent webinar, School Improvement Grant (SIG) administrators in state education departments learned more about how the National 4-H and Cooperative Extension programs supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture can help with the national effort to turnaround low-performing schools and end the dropout crisis.

During the webinar, the passion and commitment of Extension directors was evident. North Carolina’s Marshall Smith described how he connects rural teachers and students with the latest research and resources at North Carolina State University. He and other Extension directors throughout the nation are excited by a new partnership that enables them to aggressively leverage the power of the knowledge being developed by their land-grant universities to have greater impact on rural schools.

At the National 4-H Conference in April, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced their shared commitment to support rural school turnarounds and provide solutions to keep students engaged in school.

The Obama Administration has provided unprecedented resources in the form of $4 billion in School Improvement Grants to help states turn around their lowest performing schools, but it recognizes that schools cannot accomplish this difficult work alone. The federal government is not only working with states, but is also engaging with nonprofit and community-based partners to help build school capacity and add programming where needed.

Understanding that nonprofit and community partnerships are limited or nonexistent in some distant and remote rural areas, the Education and Agriculture departments are working together to increase awareness among state education agencies and their SIG schools about resources available through the national 4-H and land-grant university Cooperative Extension programs.

The goal is to increase awareness of the ways 4-H and the Extensions can partner with distant and remote rural schools to create programs that are specific to each school community’s needs, including financial literacy, youth entrepreneurship, STEM and science literacy programs, community engagement, parenting, healthy living, food and nutrition, and other programs that bridge formal and nonformal learning experiences.

To learn more, connect to the ED-USDA webinar materials (.doc).

SIG Grant Invested in Teachers, Technology at Rural Turnaround High School

Teachers and administrators in the rural village of DePue, Ill—more than 100 miles southwest of Chicago—are connecting with their colleagues and students in new and exciting ways as they lead the difficult work of turning around academic achievement in their local high school.

Like many who traveled to the this month’s federal 2011 Midwest Regional School Improvement Grant Capacity-Building Conference in Chicago, the DePue School District team is investing heavily in teacher and administrator training to improve instruction. With help from the Department of Education’s School Improvement Grants, they are also deploying the latest technologies to provide students and adults with a new world of learning opportunities.

A teacher at DePue High School uses technology in the classroom

Robert Libka, who leads a transformation team of 10 educators at DePue High School, used Skype to connect with a teacher in Indonesia during a recent professional development workshop. “It was 1 a.m. her time and she was interested enough in our work to log-in,” said Libka, adding that he wants DePue teachers to know their work is important and can have global impact. Technologies such as Skype can improve collaboration for rural educators, and reduce their sense of isolation.

English teacher Mary Flor uses an interactive white board to guide her class of seniors to research on poetry classics. Her students use their laptops to dive deeper into the material than would be possible with only a text book. These new tools are being used to enrich classroom discussions through wireless Internet at school, which is the only online access available to some DePue students.

DePue is also using technology to give its students a head start for college. Many of them are the first in their families to attend college.  It offers college-level coursework to its students online through a partnership with nearby Illinois Valley Community College.

Teacher Tim Stevens uses computer software to help students prepare for the ACT college entrance exam, which is mandatory for all 11th graders in Illinois as a part of its state assessment.  The individually paced instruction has helped some students boost both their scores and their confidence in going on to college.

A transformation is underway at DePue High School – one that is designed to prepare every student for success in college and the career of their choice.

John White is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education

The Rural Imperative

Education and the economy are inextricably linked and improving both is the rural imperative — a critical challenge facing our nation.

Today, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a challenge and made a promise to approximately 200 educators, business leaders, and federal, state, and local government officials, who came from as far as Alaska to attend the Education Commission of the States’ National Summit on the Role of Education in Rural America, held in Washington.

Secretary Duncan challenged rural America to send more young people and adults to universities and colleges, community colleges, trade schools, and other industry-recognized certification programs. Overall, rural schools have better high school graduation rates but lower college-going rates than other parts of the country.

Together, Duncan and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack promised that the Obama Administration will support rural students and emphasized their importance to America’s economic future.

This sounds pretty straight forward, but because rural students are less likely to enroll and complete postsecondary education, many rural youth and adults are not benefiting from college and career training opportunities.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are 3.1 million job openings nationally but many industries are having trouble finding qualified employees in what has become a knowledge-based economy.

At the same time, there are new opportunities developing in rural America with new industries developing in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and technology. In fact, new companies are now engaged in “rural-sourcing,” actively recruiting employees to fill positions for companies that are finding it cost effective to locate in rural America.

To rebuild and reinvent rural economies, more youth and adults must access postsecondary education and turn an economic crisis into a once in a generation opportunity.

Click here for more information on rural issues at ED.

John White is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach at the Department of Education