A Visit with Old Friends

The Rural Schools Collaborative Team drives to the Missouri Ozarks to see local partners

April 11, 2022 |

Braving the wilds of the open road during the early-spring rains, the Rural Schools Collaborative staff made the trek from western Illinois into the Ozarks to visit with regional partners. The Missouri Ozarks occupy a special position in RSC’s history as home to some of its earliest collaborators and supporters. RSC traveled to both West Plains and Springfield to see an array of collaborators from Grants in Place recipients and board members, to hub partners and Rural Teacher Corps coordinators.

The RSC Staff in West Plains
The RSC Staff in West Plains

The first leg of the journey brought the RSC Teamin the wooded heart of the Ozarks. West Plains, MO is the home of Missouri State University-West Plains, a site for the Ozarks Teacher Corps, and founding board member Carol Silvey, the town also hosts the Glenwood R-VIII School District, a Place Network School for Teton Science Schools. Taking a short drive south of West Plains past streams, barns, and the season’s first daffodils leaves no question as to why the Glenwood School is a perfect site for place-based education.

Bridget Larsen
Bridget Larsen behind her desk at Glenwood School

In 2020, Bridget Larsen, a middle school math teacher at Glenwood, was named as a Celia B. Godsil Grants in Place Fellow to work with her students to “explore the differences in poverty and wealth across different place-based levels (from local to global).” Far beyond the grant itself, Bridget has been a passionate collaborator with RSC, and joined the inaugural cohort of the Young Educators Advisory Council and the pilot group for Rural Educators Across Borders. Along with her training through Teton Science schools, these experiences guided Bridget and her students to launch a local, multi-pronged project focused on need in the community, which included establishing a community closet in the middle school. Bridget mentioned that “students working on the Poverty & Wealth unit recognized there is a need for clothing donations in their own school community. Students started bringing clothes in from home and opened donations up in the school community.” The day RSC staff visited, one class of students was busily sorting new donations they received from the community.

The impact of this work has been tangible for the West Plains community, and even for students themselves. Bridget shared afterwards about one interaction between a student and her fellow teacher, Christy Frazier: “A student showed Christy a pile of clothes they had neatly folded. Christy asked if the student needed help folding, but the student asked instead if actually they could take those clothes home because of their own personal need. Without question, Christy agreed, and helped them fold and bag up the clothes to take home that same day.”

The work of Bridget and her students remains strong, and the legacy of the effort lives on in a second Godsil Fellowship awarded to Bridget’s colleague, Amy Kaufman. Amy’s students identified food insecurity as another major dimension to poverty and inequality in their region. After the purchase of an old farm property behind the school, Amy and her students used the grant funds to create a greenhouse, technology center, and a chicken coop.

Amy Kaufman and RSC's Savannah Franklund with Moose the Guinea Pig
Amy Kaufman and RSC's Savannah Franklund with Moose the Guinea Pig

The students took the RSC team on a small field trip to view their progress, one student shared that “we normally rotate who’s working because a lot of people want to get up, like on the roof, to do the work, and so we’ll share the work.” Yet, they’ve persisted through waves of sanding, painting, research, and an especially tough time removing the roof to make great strides toward completing the coop. Another student shared that they’re most looking forward to “actually taking care of the chickens, and making sure they’re alive and safe,” but when it is all done the students said that they are excited to pass the project down to a new generation of classmates behind them.

Reflecting on the transformative impact place-based education and these projects have had on the students and community alike, Glenwood Principal Lucas Brown says that this progress demonstrates “a lot of those principles that go back to Teton Science and design-thinking. It's neat to see because those skills may not be measured on standardized tests we take at the end of the year, but they’re going to help them in high school, college, and into their lives…After the wealth and poverty unit last year, a lot kids really went from thinking, ‘I’m just a kid and I can’t do anything to help out in our community,’ to, ‘Oh, I really can do this.’”

Entrance to the Community Foundation of the Ozarks
Entrance to the Community Foundation of the Ozarks

After a day of inspiration and activity with Glenwood School, RSC staff traveled next to Springfield, MO, home of RSC’s regional hub lead, the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. Not only does the Community Foundation share one of the longest running partnerships with RSC, but their Rural School Partnership program and Ozarks Teacher Corps were both germinal for what would become RSC itself.

The Ozarks Teacher Corps spring workshop coincided with the RSC team’s trip, and was even facilitated by Leslie Cook of Teton Science Schools, RSC’s Northern Rockies Hub partner. First visiting the Community Foundation itself to see old and new friends - and brainstorm future collaborations - the RSC staff then commuted over to Springfield’s Nathanael Greene & Close Memorial Park to see first-hand what place-based, rural-focused teacher instruction is all about.

Preservice teachers participated in a full day of open discussions, reading and reflection, outdoor activities.These place-based activities helped begin the process of cultivating design-thinking and inquiry skills.” For many of the participants, this was their first true interaction with place-based learning.

Darby Eggleston, a senior at Drury University and Ozarks Teacher Corps participant, said that while she went to a rural school herself, with a graduating class of only eight students, she had not encountered place-based education before. She continues, “that’s why I’m really interested in this. I can take what I know and bring it back to rural school districts that don’t have this. The reading that we did for this [from Teaching in Rural Places] was talking about how every rural community has their own way of literacy and community, and I think it’s important to get kids involved with that.”

Keandra Jennings, one of Darby’s classmates, agreed, adding that her experience at the training “was my first interaction with something of this sort. I got really excited with the concept of place-based education because it just makes sense to me. I feel like this is just basic stuff. Why am I just now learning about this?”

Beth Hersh and Ashley Fleming, co-leaders of the teacher corps, host these workshops to provide the OTC scholarship recipients with an opportunity to not only learn place-based education, but to dive even deeper into their commitment to teach rurally as well. For students like Tina Wilson, these events reinforce the advantage of rural education and give teachers professional and personal meaning:

“I’m student-teaching 1st Grade at an elementary school in Rolla, and that’s where I want to end up. That’s actually where I went to elementary school and I loved it. There’s a flag wall made of our hand[print]s, and my hand is on that wall from 1st Grade, so it’s like home…I would have no idea what I was talking about if I went to St. Louis or Springfield. I just feel like I wouldn’t be able to relate as well to students who aren’t from a rural community, or that they wouldn’t relate as well to me.”

The Community Foundation of the Ozarks was also recognized in the Springfield Business Journal for nearing $1,000,000 in scholarships given through the Ozarks Teacher Corps program over the past 13 years. Thanks to our partners at Missouri State University, Teton Science Schools, and the Community Foundation of the Ozarks for their incredible efforts in preparing the next generation of rural teacher-leaders, and supporting innovative, place-based programs in local schools - RSC is proud to see this work first-hand and share these stories from our Ozarks hub.

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