White House Rural Roundtable Meeting in Tennessee

A healthy American economy depends on a prosperous rural America. Which is why President Obama created the White House Rural Council to build upon the administration’s robust economic strategy for rural America, and to ensure that rural communities drive innovation and capitalize on emerging opportunities. On Wednesday, I joined Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, state schools chief Kevin Huffman, Tennessee Teacher of the Year Cheryl Deaton, school superintendents, principals and business leaders in Nashville for a White House Rural Council roundtable. The roundtable focused on education reform efforts being made in Tennessee and in rural areas across the country, and how these reforms can lead to a highly skilled workforce and a stronger economy.

(Official Department of Education Photo By Leslie Williams)

This week’s White House Rural Council roundtable meeting provided a valuable opportunity to discuss the issues and solutions related to preparing rural students for college and jobs that currently exist in their communities.

These conversations guide the work of the Council and help government foster investment, support communities, and spur rural job creation by partnering with leaders in rural America. Established by President Obama in June 2011, the Council is composed of the leaders of every federal agency, who work together to improve coordination of existing federal resources and facilitate public-private partnerships that can strengthen rural communities.

During the roundtable meeting, I was struck by the comments of Tony Cates, a human resource manager for Gestamp Corp., a local Volkswagen supplier. Cates estimated that half of the recent high school graduates who apply for jobs with Gestamp lack the literacy and math skills needed for employment with his company. He said many recent grads also need greater competencies in the “soft skills” related to one’s attitude, motivation, and sense of responsibility for workplace norms.

Several superintendents questioned the goal of preparing all students for college, which they perceived to be the “university track,” and expressed the need for greater emphasis on career and technical education. As Commissioner Huffman correctly observed, we have the same goal but we were speaking a different language. College should mean more than a four-year university degree.

Community colleges for example, are the closest access to college for many rural students, who are less likely than their peers nationally to pursue postsecondary education. Community colleges and secondary schools can partner to create modern technical training programs and career pathways that lead to an Associate Degree or an industry certification. Both of which can provide local businesses with skilled employees.

With $1 billion for career and technical education (CTE) in the President’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget request, this administration remains committed to supporting higher standards for CTE and ensuring that today’s CTE programs teach skills that are needed for today’s jobs instead of the outdated vocational models that no longer meet the needs of their local economies.  

I left Tennessee encouraged by the willingness of rural school leaders to work together to maximize resources, including the use of technology to increase access to high-level science courses. They are acting quickly to support teachers in preparing students to meet higher standards, and recognize the need to expose students to the world of work. 

I am proud to support them as a member of the White House Rural Council and look forward to working with my federal partners to increase opportunity in rural communities now and in the future.

The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love: TEACH Presents Matthew Eddy

Ed. Note: Cross-posted from TEACH.gov. This post is the seventh in a summer-long, weekly blog series celebrating young teachers. We hope these profiles of teachers who have inspired their students and increased their classroom’s performance will inspire the next generation of teachers! Please visit our blog to see the previous posts.

“Education really is a labor of love,” says Matthew Eddy, the Agriculture Education Instructor and FFA Advisor at Southeast Polk Community Schools in Pleasant Hill, Iowa: “you have to have a desire to help people.” But, he continues, “in agriculture education, we are lucky enough to work hard at preparing the future generations of agriculturists who will have such a large impact on what our world will look like. Everyone needs to eat, so I can’t imagine a more important industry to lend my efforts to improve.” Matt hopes that by setting a good example for his students, he’ll inspire them to work towards a career in agriculture—or perhaps teaching. For Matt, “The most fun comes when they find something that clicks with their goals and realize that Ag is pretty ‘cool.’”

Two excellent agriculture educators got Matt interested in the subject early on. Upon graduation, he had the option to go into “farming, teaching, or business and industry—I got started as a first year teacher,” he says.  “I never really planned to teach very long but I suppose the rest is history. To turn a phrase from the Ag Teachers Creed: ‘I got here by chance but have stayed by choice.’”

Matt believes that Career and Technical Education (CTE) is “uniquely positioned to restore our educational system to the greatness it was once known for.” He engages his students by putting their studies in context, and involving them in practices during agricultural cycles. The agricultural science program Matt built and now oversees utilizes the three circle model of agricultural education, in which formal instruction, supervised experience, and work with the Future Farmers of America (FFA), are all equally emphasized. 100% of Matt’s students are members of the FFA and participate in Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE). The 256 FFA members at his school comprise the largest chapter in Iowa. As part of the AgScience program, Matt’s students artificially inseminate cattle so that they’ll breed at the Iowa State Fair. There his students not only learn about the entire cycle but also have the opportunity to educate the families attending the fair about the breeding and birthing process. The AgScience program also covers Aqua Culture, Greenhouse care, Landscaping, and Animal Science.

In addition to his work as a teacher, Matt is involved in education at the local, state, and national level. He serves in the Polk County 4-H Club, and on the FFA Fair Board. Under Matt’s leadership, Southeast Polk’s FFA chapter has won the National Chapter Three Star Award six years in a row.

For Matt, the toughest part about teaching is “realizing that 90% of the job is working with students.” He knows that “taking care of the things you can affect, accepting the things you can’t and having enough wisdom to know the difference,” enables him to effectively manage all of his responsibilities. “It’s a tough job,” says Matt. “Teaching takes all of your energy, [and] is never the same from day to day or even hour to hour. [It is] the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

Teachers ‘Go Bananas’ Over Real-World Connections to STEM

Sparta schools administrator Tom Steward at Kwik Trip's distribution center

Sparta schools administrator Tom Steward views "the banana room" at Kwik Trip's distribution center in La Crosse, Wis.

How can a room full of bananas help teachers get kids excited about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)?

Secretary Duncan and other national leaders say that U.S. students need to complete a rigorous math and science coursework so they’re ready to compete in the global economy. Wisconsin educator Tom Steward was stirred by that call to action but recognized some inherent challenges.

“Students did not see the connection between what was being taught and how they could ever use it,” said Steward, who frequently observes STEM classes as the director of curriculum and instruction for Sparta Area School District.

To help make these connections, 60 teachers from Sparta and eight other rural school districts in western Wisconsin got bunches of inspiration from bananas. As part of a two-week summer academy for STEM teachers, on July 25 Steward led a visit to Kwik Trip’s distribution center in La Crosse, Wisc. to learn strategies to make their lessons come alive. Steward is a founder of the program, which works with regional businesses as well as the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Western Technical College and the U.S. Army at nearby Fort McCoy to help STEM teachers make lessons relevant.

Steward and the consortium’s other founders recognized that teachers — and especially teachers in rural areas — often teach in isolation from each other and from other potential resources that could help them teach more contextually. In response, they produced this “brainchild” that ultimately became the Western Wisconsin STEM Consortium, he said. The program was awarded a competitive Math and Science Partnership grant in 2008 from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which in turn received the federal funding by formula from ED.

Here’s how bananas can make scientific principles come to life: As teachers watched Kwik Trip forklift drivers load boxes of the fruit nearly to the ceiling of a storeroom, they saw a number of scientific principles at work, teachable moments.

“The forklift driver knows that too much weight on the forks going up an incline plane with a steep angle may not be possible,” explained Steward. “That’s due to the push of gravity down on the forks and the way the weight is distributed.”

A lesson plan based on this real-life scenario will soon be posted to the consortium’s website at http://www.uwstout.edu/wwsc/index.cfm, which already includes numerous lessons developed through the program that help students make those lifelong connections between science and the real world.

Julie Ewart
Julie Ewart serves in the Great Lakes Regional Office for ED. She and Cynthia Dorfman, Director of Regional Operations for ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach, participated in the visit to Kwik Trip’s distribution center.

Read the President’s plan for Improving Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education.

Why I Do What I Do in Rural Schools

Amy French, Career Counselor in Sullivan County, TN

In my small community of just under 50,000, a chasm divides those who pursued post-secondary training and those who did not finish high school or hold a high school diploma. That chasm is ever-widening, but not impassable.

As a college and career counselor with the Niswonger Foundation, I serve four area high schools in Upper East Tennessee. Two of the main goals of my position are to create a college-going culture and to remove barriers that hinder post-secondary education for every student.

The term “college” doesn’t just mean a four-year university degree; it encompasses any and all post-secondary training. My hope is that my presence in these schools encourages, creates, and facilitates a community of higher expectations in students and also in professional educators.

Among several opportunities, my husband and I chose my hometown near Kingsport, TN, as a place to live and raise our children. We enjoy living near family, the mountains, smaller towns, and low crime rate. I enjoy working with students and educators in our community to tap the rich, unique resources here—resources of intellect, emotional intelligences, and artists. These resources are underutilized because of the barriers to education that seem insurmountable to some.

My heart aches as I counsel those who face the challenges of weak curricula, poverty, poor infrastructure, lengthy distances to educational centers, little to no emotional or monetary support from parents, drug abuse, and the lack of resilience that must be nurtured from a young age.

My personal mission is not so much to tear down these barriers (though we are making headway) but to encourage and inspire my students to tear them down individually, paving the way for those that follow their trailblazing efforts.

This way, we have changed the culture, leaving in our wake the mindset that all people can achieve and all can succeed.

Amy French
Career Counselor in Sullivan County, TN.

The Niswonger Foundation’s Northeast Tennessee College and Career Ready Consortium of 15 school districts in Appalachia is supported by an Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund grant.

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).

Inspiration Overcomes Anxiety for Future Teachers in Rural Illinois

Why teach?

“This may sound like a hippie answer, but I want to change the world,” said future teacher Joelle Schulda, when asked what drew her to education. “If I can reach just one child—who knows?—that child could grow up to be the president of the United States.”

A small group of future educators shared their career inspirations and concerns with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Rural Outreach John White during a recent TEACH campaign town hall at the Illinois Valley Community College in rural Oglesby, Illinois.

Some current and former IVCC education students stand with ED’s John White: (front, from left) Kris Sienza, White, Megan Mikesell and Marissa Vicich; (second row) Cortney Mikesell, Joelle Shulda, Jackie Heim and Aseret Gonzalez; (back) Abby Derix and Chris Tidmore. Photo courtesy of IVCC.

White was joined by Illinois State University Dean of Education Deborah Curtis, IVCC Education Program Coordinator Jill Urban-Bollis and IVCC Early Education Program Coordinator Diane Christianson for the panel, moderated by IVCC Vice President for Learning and Student Development Rick Pearce.

Aseret Gonzalez said she sees a “lack of mentorship” in her community and wants to help fill that void as an educator.  Another student hopes to follow in the footsteps of numerous family members who are current or former teachers. “I’ve always known that I wanted to teach,” said IVCC student Kris Sienza.  “I chose math because I used to love it, but found the classes to be really boring as I got older.  I want to get kids excited about math.”

While the students’ passion for education was clear, several discussed concerns about their chosen career path.  “Everything that’s known about teaching is very much changing,” remarked Christianson, as the dialogue turned to teacher layoffs, labor disputes, and other issues facing present-day educators such as the restrictive demands of NCLB.

White discussed the President’s Blueprint for Reform which would “stop labeling schools as failures” by changing its accountability provision to focus on students’ growth over time rather than “measuring different kids each year on one test on one day.”

Despite their concerns, the IVCC students embraced the goals of the TEACH campaign described by White — recruiting nearly 1 million new teachers over the next 5 years to replace the retiring teachers of the baby boomer generation, and celebrating today’s great educators.

The participants plan to work with ED’s communications and outreach team for the Great Lakes Region, based in Chicago, to serve as TEACH “ambassadors” with local high schools in order to encourage more students to consider the teaching profession.

Julie Ewart is the Senior Public Affairs Specialist in the Chicago Regional Office. She is the mother of three school-aged children.

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

A Teacher We Met: Terry Cornett

Agriscience teacher Terry Cornett

Agriscience teacher Terry Cornett uses his class to review math and science concepts.

Agriscience teachers prepare students for one of the nation’s oldest and most-rewarding industries: growing safe and healthy food. Terry Cornett makes agriscience come alive for his students at Liberty Middle School in a rural segment of Hanover, Va. A 30-year teaching veteran with tremendous enthusiasm and deep knowledge of his subject, Cornett has dramatically changed the way that agriscience is taught at our school, involving students in both the skills and mission of community farming.

Previously a physical science teacher, Cornett recognized how much his students struggled with math and science concepts. With that notion in mind, he incorporates more of those critical subjects into his agriscience teaching. “Teaching kids how to think and generalize concepts is vital,” Cornett said. “Agriscience allows me to teach cross-curricular (concepts). Students are gaining the theory from their content classes, then I am able to provide the opportunity for practical application in my class.” (Read how the Department’s Blueprint for Reform supports students receiving a complete education that includes science, technology, engineering, and math.)

To fully engage students in science, Cornett has encouraged them to become more involved with award recognition programs. This year, he has reintroduced FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America) into the agriscience program, and students grow and sell plants from the school’s greenhouse. They even had their organically grown greens used in salads offered in the school’s cafeteria.

Students Chase Buchannon, Matt Downey, and Clay Welton

Left to right: Students Chase Buchannon, Matt Downey, and Clay Welton cultivate their Farm to Table garden and their love of learning.

Under the “Farm to Table” banner and working with Liberty Middle’s home economics teacher, Cornett’s classes have become immersed in promoting locally grown agriculture through education, community outreach, and networking. Farm to Table enhances marketing opportunities for agriscience students; encourages family farming, farmers’ markets, and preservation of agricultural traditions; influences public policy; and furthers understanding of the links among farming, food, health, and local economies. In addition, Cornett is looking to get more involved with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign next school year.

“Helping to keep traditions alive for our farming community is rewarding,” Cornett said.

Lisa Coates
Lisa Coates is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow who recently spent time observing Terry Cornett while teaching at Liberty Middle School in Hanover, Va.

Review information about rural schools from the Institute of Education Sciences.

Learn more about Rural School Achievement Formula Grants.

Read a blog article from a student of Lisa Coates, Raquan Moore.

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

Supporting Rural Schools

Cross-posted from the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE) Blog

As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, we in OESE are taking a new approach to working and helping districts build capacity, especially those who serve diverse groups of learners. So, one of our priorities is working specifically with rural schools and communities to ensure they have the appropriate resources and support to address the unique challenges they face.

Photo Credit: Reza Marvashti/The Freelance Star

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a rural school in Colonial Beach, Virginia – specifically, a rural SIG school.  Colonial Beach High School is one of two schools in the Colonial Beach district, and it serves a population of 3,000 citizens. The school received SIG funds last year and they’ve adopted the transformation model to turn around the school, with a lot of support from the district and its superintendent, Dr. Carol Power.

During my visit, I met teachers, saw some classrooms, and spoke with the dedicated School Board and the Lead Turnaround Partners team, which is made up of six educational experts that are working with Colonial Beach to implement the school turnaround process. The school has made some encouraging progress, but what was really interesting for me to see was how Colonial Beach was dealing with some of its challenges as a rural school. For example, the school has only one algebra teacher – that certainly makes it difficult to form a professional learning community at the school! The solution for Colonial Beach has been to use technology to connect teachers to colleagues in other areas.

The Department recognizes that many of our nation’s rural schools face particular challenges like this one, and we are working to provide technical assistance and other forms of support, including our upcoming SIG Conference focused on rural and Native American students, to be held on May 24-25 in Denver. We want to offer a forum for rural educators to build a professional network, to learn from one another, and to celebrate the unique strengths offered by rural communities. I’m interested in learning even more about strategies and successes in rural schools across the country, so I encourage you to share your experiences directly with me at AskDrT@ed.gov.

Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana is Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education for the U.S. Department of Education

4-H and Extensions Offer Partners for School Turnarounds

“I couldn’t be more hopeful, more optimistic about your generation” Secretary Duncan told a group of nearly 500 4-H youth delegates earlier today at the National 4-H Youth Conference in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined Secretary Duncan at the conference where both Secretaries answered questions from the audience and talked to students about the challenge of educating our way to a better economy. In his State of the Union address this year, President Obama emphasized that “to win the future, we have to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world, tapping the creativity and imagination of our people.”

Secretary Duncan said that one of our greatest challenges is turning around the bottom 5% of our nation’s schools.  To address this challenge, the Obama Administration dedicated more than $4 billion in school improvement grants to states through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the budgets for fiscal years 2009 and 2010.

States have identified their lowest achieving schools and we are challenging them to compete for this funding by putting forth their best turnaround plans. However, schools and districts cannot do this work alone. They need to engage and work with public and private partners such as the 4-H and land grant university extension programs. “Forming these kinds of partnerships provides the best chance for rural areas to turn around their lowest performing schools and keep children from dropping out,” said Secretary Duncan.

4-H is the nation’s largest youth development organization and a program of our nation’s cooperative extension system. Each U.S. state and territory has a state cooperative extension office at its land grant university and a network of local and regional offices that can work with schools. The 4-H and extension programs can provide community-based partnerships that help schools create sustainable community changes in a number of ways.

The National 4-H and Extensions can work with schools to create programs that are specific to the school community’s needs, including financial literacy, parenting, healthy living, food and nutrition, science literacy, robotics, and civic engagement to bridge formal and non-formal learning experiences.

Check out the USDA’s Youth Development and 4-H page for more information.

– Sherry Schweitzer

Increasing Support for High-Need Rural Schools

At a time when the new normal means increasing productivity to do more with less, the Obama Administration is doing more to guide high-need rural school leaders to federal resources that some are not aware exist outside of education.

While school leaders often turn to the Department of Education for support, they have asked senior officials where else to look for federal support for rural schools. The Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development offices provide a national infrastructure of support and assistance particularly for high-poverty rural communities.

To increase access to federal resources where they are needed most, the Secretaries of Education and Agriculture, Arne Duncan and Tom Vilsack, are working collaboratively to guide rural school leaders and stakeholders to programs and funding available through their local USDA Rural Development offices. USDA Rural Development can help with school construction, renovation, teacher housing, home loan assistance for teachers and administrators, distance learning and broadband technology, and even a school bus replacement grant for a community facility.

Senior staff members within both departments in Washington D.C., the Department of Education’s 10 regional offices, and USDA’s state offices are coordinating on a direct outreach campaign to fulfill the secretaries’ commitment to bring new resources to high-need rural schools.

The following table provides examples of how USDA Rural Development programs can provide needed support for rural schools [MS Word]. Rural school leaders should contact their USDA state office for assistance with accessing Rural Development programs, http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/StateOfficeAddresses.html .

The two departments have hosted a series of conference calls with rural school leaders, advocacy groups, and other stakeholders. The transcripts of those calls provide additional details on how USDA programs can provide critical support for high-need rural schools.