Education Official Visits Rural Schools Partnership Conference

John White, U.S. Department of Education deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach, speaks at the Rural Schools Partnership conference in Thomasville.

John White, U.S. Department of Education deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach, speaks at the Rural Schools Partnership conference in Thomasville.

To hear more about the conference, listen to KSMU’s report.

The newly christened Ozarks Teacher Corps is an innovative partnership that will be worth watching to see if it can be replicated in other rural areas, said John White, a U.S. Department of Education leader who attended the annual Rural Schools Partnership conference Thursday in Thomasville, Mo.

White, the Department’s deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach, joined more than 120 rural educators and students in the tiny Oregon County community for a day of celebrating new projects and learning more about the principles of placed-based education that define the Rural Schools Partnership.

The inaugural class of the Ozarks Teacher Corps includes 18 students from Drury University, Ozarks Technical Community College and Missouri State University’s campuses in Springfield and West Plains, who will receive annual $4,000 scholarships in return for a commitment to spend at least three years teaching in a rural school after graduation. This program is made possible by the Chesley and Flora Lea Wallis Scholarship Fund, a $1.7 million Community Foundation of the Ozarks’ charitable fund.

White said he came to the Ozarks to see this new program in hopes that it can create a model to help fill critical teacher shortages in rural communities across the country.

“One of the things we want to do from Washington is figure out what from a policy level will be most applicable and work at a local level,” White said, citing programs such as using Skype technology for distance learning and installing technology on school busses for learning during long daily commutes.  “We want to provide support in different ways instead of a one-size-fits-all approach.”

He said the U.S. Department of Education is advocating for more discretionary uses for federal education dollars instead of strictly formula-based funding to schools.

“We can use that to identify programs that are unique, innovative and that work and then invest in them so they can be replicated,” he said.

He also said the Department has made a conscious decision to focus on the philanthropic sector through programs such as the Investing in Innovation Fund grants, an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act initiative to encourage partnerships between school districts and nonprofits such as foundations.

“We know rural philanthropy is alive and well and we’re going to try to set the stage to help more rural schools and communities invest in and rebuild themselves,” White said.

Gary Funk, president of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, which sponsors the Rural Schools Partnership and hosted the Thomasville conference, said he appreciated White’s remarks about the role philanthropy is playing in rural-education needs.

“We have to think of thoughtful ways for how we as a society and we as communities keep these schools open,” Funk said. “We’re going to have to look at public-private partnerships. We know we have the resources in this country to merge philanthropy, partnerships and economic development and do a better job.”

During an afternoon workshop with the Ozarks Teacher Corps’ students at picnic tables along the bank of the Eleven Point National Scenic River, White asked for their ideas on how the federal government can help improve rural schools. Their recommendations included reducing the emphasis on “teaching for tests” in the upcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act; supporting networking groups like the Future Teachers Association; encouraging flexible schedules for non-traditional students; and offering stipends for national board certifications.

“I think, nationwide, there needs to be a shift toward making the teaching profession more noble,” said Mykie Nash, of Nixa, who is studying elementary education at OTC and MSU.

Melissa Payne, a Drury University elementary education major from Sparta, articulated why many of the students are interested in returning to their rural communities:  “Teachers were always a big part of our lives whether at school functions or at something like the rodeo. I think what made me want to be a teacher was how they treated us as students.”

White reiterated after the workshop that he plans to take back to Washington the seeds of the fledgling Teacher Corps program to plant in other rural communities.

“What’s unique is it’s specifically intended to create the next generation of teachers, which is critically needed,” he said.  “It’s encouraging to see they are all on the same wavelength about how to elevate the profession.”

The inaugural class of the Ozarks’ Teachers Corps includes:

  • Class of 2012: Kathy Bradshaw (Norwood) Drury, Secondary English; Rachel Buck (Monett) OTC/Drury, Elementary Education; Derik Collins (Dora) MSU-West Plains, Secondary Business; Rachel Dean (Hurley) MSU, Middle School Math/Science; Chelsea Fox (Dora) MSU-West Plains, Elementary Education; Rhiannon Hadley (Birch Tree) MSU-West Plains, Elementary Education; Nicole Matney (Willard) OTC/MSU, Secondary Mathematics; and Mykie Nash (Nixa) OTC/MSU, Elementary Education
  • Class of 2011: Lauryn Albrecht (Republic) Drury, Elementary Education; Albert Bryant (Everton) Drury, Secondary Mathematics; Lucas England (Koshkonong) MSU-West Plains, Secondary Social Studies; Suzanne Feldman (Buffalo) Drury, Secondary Mathematics; Jessica Joiner (Lebanon) Drury, Elementary Education; Morgan Mais (Marionville) Drury, Elementary Education; Lita Meeks (Monett) MSU, Elementary Education; Whitney Packwood (Billings) Drury, Elementary Education; Melissa Payne (Sparta) Drury, Elementary Education; and Glenda Wahlert (Cassville) MSU, Elementary Education