Innovative Place-based Education Projects lead by ROOTed in Place & National Signature Project Award Recipients

Our National Signature Project Awardees and ROOTed in Place grantees shared updates from their place-based education project.

January 23, 2024 |
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Our grantees gathered via Zoom across six states to share the updates on their projects.

At the heart of Rural School Collaborative’s mission is a firm conviction: supporting rural teachers is not just essential but pivotal in fostering strong connections between students and their rural communities. Recognizing that educators often serve as the vital link between these two realms, Rural Schools Collaborative proudly awards over $50,000 to rural educators annually, through the Grants in Place Program, to spearhead impactful place-based education projects. These initiatives are designed to enrich students' understanding and appreciation of their community, simultaneously extending an invitation for the community to actively participate in the classroom and school. It's more than a program; it's a commitment to strengthening the bonds that make rural education exceptional.

Rural Schools Collaborative's Grants in Place program consists of two primary, annual grant opportunities: RSC's Grants in Place Fellows program, and the National Signature Project Award in collaboration with the National Rural Education Association.

Rural Schools Collaborative is proud to be a recipient of the 2023 Compeer Financial General Use Grant. With this support, RSC is pleased to award three additional rural teachers, in Compeer's service area, as our ROOTed in Place grantees.

Recently, RSC had the pleasure of checking in with the current National Signature Project Award and ROOTed grant recipients to learn more about their place-based education initiatives across the country.

ROOTed in Place Project Updates:

Brittany Culjan (L) & Kathy Schutlz (R), Co-STEAM Teachers

Brittany Culjan & Kathy Schutlz, of Utica, Illinois, are leading a remarkable expansion of their school-wide gardening initiatives. As recipients of the ROOTed in Place grant, they've utilized the funds to acquire a greenhouse, implement compost bins and install rain barrels, with the goal of optimizing soil conditions for an innovative and self-sustaining curriculum.

This collaborative school-wide effort involves students at all grade levels actively participating in the growth and harvest of corn, a crucial element for their popcorn production venture.

Students at Waltham Elementary participating in planting seeds.

The annual project serves as a holistic learning experience, engaging students in every stage of the seed-to-kernel production process. From planting and understanding the significance of composting to tending to their produce and ultimately participating in the popcorn production, students gain valuable insights into sustainable agriculture. Taking their commitment a step further, the older students actively contribute to the marketing, packaging, and sale of the popcorn and other produce within their local community. This not only instills a sense of entrepreneurship but also directly fosters community engagement and support.

Professor Popcorn, the student-designed mascot for the schools popcorn production operation.

In the upcoming year, the dedicated co-STEAM teachers aspire to solidify the subscription program, offering community members a reliable source of fresh produce directly from the students and soils of Waltham Elementary. Brittany and Kathy’s inspiring efforts showcase the potential of hands-on, garden-based education to cultivate not only crops but also a deep connection between students and their community.

Jay Gesin, Platteville Middle School 8th Grade Teacher.


Jay Gesin of Platteville, Wisconsin is leading his students on an enriching journey, through his project, “Experiential Learning in the Driftless”. Integrating his passion for writing and history with middle school curricula, Jay crafted a unique and impactful educational experience using a nearby local treasure, the Frank Lloyd Wright house Taliesin, a UNESCO World Heritage site. In this innovative place-based learning project, student groups scaffold classroom learning to the real-world setting of Taliesin, transforming theoretical knowledge into vivid experience and engagement. The grant Jay secured enriches learning beyond traditional classroom constraints and also enables collaborative connections with various community partners, amplifying the depth of his curriculum and fostering valuable partnerships in their school community.

Jay's students listening to Caroline Hamblen, Director of Programs at Taliesin.

Beyond exploring the architecture and connection between and design and place inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, Jay has utilized the grant to forge additional local relationships. These include both local farmers and conservation groups such as the Driftless Area Land Conservancy. Additionally, Jay has curated opportunities for his students to interact with local authors and environmental scientists, providing a holistic and interdisciplinary educational experience.

Gina Morken, Assistant Superintendent of Spring Grove Public Schools.

Gina Morken of Spring Grove, Minnesota is orchestrating a transformative shift in the conventional curriculum, partnering with Teacher Coordinator, Julianna Lile, to extend learning beyond the classroom walls. Together with the school staff, they are forging community partnerships at all grade levels within Spring Grove Public Schools, breathing life into education by collaborating with local experts.

In the quaint town of Spring Grove, every Wednesday becomes an adventure for students as they step outside traditional boundaries. Guided by the Community Based School idea, they delve into a farm partnership, immerse themselves in play production, and explore local parks for adventure education.

7th grade students observing a pig pen at a local farm.

Morken and Lile embody the essence of ROOTed in Place, intertwining education with the community, connecting students to the land, and going above and beyond conventional teaching methods. Their vision transcends the ordinary, challenging established norms to cultivate an educational environment that not only enriches minds but empowers the next generation of rural leaders. This commitment to reshaping education serves as a beacon, encouraging students to venture beyond the expected and embrace a holistic, community-centric approach to learning. Hear from the students themselves, in this recent article.

National Signature Project Award Project Updates:

Carrie Guillaume, Agriculture Teacher at Perry Central Jr-Sr High School.

Carrie Guillaume of Leopold, Indiana, and her students, share valuable moments in their school's Commercial Community Kitchen. Through the National Signature Project Award, Carrie has significantly contributed to her school and community by acquiring a commercial oven, hood, and essential kitchen equipment, elevating the kitchen to full accreditation. This transformation not only benefits the students of Perry Central but also enriches the entire Leopold community.

The fully credited kitchen is now open to school staff and students for diverse curriculum activities, fostering a dynamic learning environment. Moreover, it serves as a community hub, allowing residents of Leopold to access this resource. Carrie, demonstrating a commitment to sustainability, utilizes student-grown produce in the kitchen. Surplus produce is generously shared with the broader community, reinforcing the positive impact of this initiative. Carrie's dedication and the collaborative efforts of her students have truly turned the Commercial Community Kitchen into a thriving and inclusive space for both educational and community-oriented purposes.

Will Miller Math and Science Teacher at Academy at Charlemont.

Will Miller of Charlemont, Massachusetts, is achieving a longstanding goal by establishing his school's inaugural maple syrup sugary, a journey undertaken alongside his dedicated students. Throughout the sugaring season, students immerse themselves in the intricacies of syrup production, engaging in tasks ranging from tapping maple trees and collecting sap in buckets to testing sap for sugar content. They also contribute to the design, construction, and maintenance of a wood-fired boiling operation, ensuring the preservation of the finished syrup.

The process becomes a lesson in resilience, as students work outdoors during the snowy winter months. By actively participating in activities such as woodcutting, students learn practical skills and also discover a newfound enthusiasm for their work. One student, after cutting wood for the first time, expressed a desire to live in a place where such activities are a constant part of life—a microcosm of the essence of the place-based projects. The goal is to instill in students the joy and pride that comes from being an integral part of rural communities, fostering a connection to their environment and encouraging a sense of fulfillment in their contributions. Will’s initiative not only brings forth the sweetness of maple syrup but also sows the seeds of appreciation for rural living among the next generation.

Kim McCully-Mobley, ELA & Leadership Teacher at Aurora High School.

Kim McCully-Mobley of Aurora, Missouri, breathes life into her rural town through her unwavering passion for storytelling. Her dedication is vividly reflected in the vibrant murals that adorn the streets of Aurora, serving as visual narratives that celebrate the town's rich history and pay homage to its resilient community.

Beyond the four walls of the classroom, Kim engages students in a unique educational experience. After absorbing historical lessons and stories within the school walls, students actively participate in the planning and creation of these remarkable murals. This hands-on involvement not only brings their hometown's history to life but also fosters a profound sense of pride among both students and the wider community.

Through Kim's endeavors, Aurora's students are not only learning about their roots but actively contributing to the preservation of their town's heritage. The murals serve as vibrant reminders of important landmarks and stories, creating a deeper connection to the community's identity and instilling a lasting pride in their hometown. Kim's project stands as a testament to the transformative power of art and storytelling in fostering a sense of belonging and cultural appreciation. Hear more about Kim’s story here.

In the heartlands of rural America, the Rural Schools Collaborative's Grants in Place program continues to sow the seeds of innovation and community engagement. With initiatives like the ROOTed in Place grants and the National Signature Project Award, educators are transcending traditional boundaries to provide students with immersive, place-based learning experiences. Through the lens of the place-based education projects, we witness the dynamic impact of hands-on education. As we celebrate these rural educators and their impactful projects, we see a common thread—the commitment to cultivating roots, instilling pride, and inspiring resilient rural futures. The Grants in Place program continues to be a catalyst for transformative education, where the journey of learning becomes a celebration of rural identity and the boundless potential within each student.

National Signature Project Award Application

Mark your calendars and spread the word because the National Signature Project Award application is opening in March 2024!

Learn More

Rural Schools Collaborative is extremely grateful for our partner organizations, who help make these grants possible. Our most sincere thanks to Compeer Financial’s support of the Grants in Place Program and the one-time ROOTed in Place Grant. And, our gratitude to the National Rural Education Association, for their continued partnership for the National Signature Project Award. Our Grants in Place Programs would not be possible without support from organizations like them.

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