Investing in Rural Teachers: Catalyst Initiative

The Rural Teacher Corps model showcases how national philanthropy can serve as a catalyst for local solutions.

September 29, 2023 |

Rural Teacher Corps students from the University of Wyoming on a learning retreat.

This op-ed from Taylor McCabe-Juhnke, RSC Executive Director, highlights promising strategies to intentionally address the rural teacher shortage, and how flexible philanthropy plays a central role. Special thanks to our Catalyst Rural Teacher Corps partners at University of Wyoming and Eastern Oregon University for hosting site visits that contributed to this story!

Rural schools are the heartbeats of their communities. And, long-term rural vitality is inextricably linked to strong schools and the educators who power them - That’s why investing in rural teacher-leaders is a national imperative. These place-based programs, called Rural Teacher Corps, build on local assets to recruit, prepare, and retain rural educators.

Since Rural Schools Collaborative’s inception in 2015, we’ve supported more than $400,000 in rural teacher initiatives across the country. Alongside our 25+ (and growing!) Rural Teacher Corps partners, we continue to find meaningful ways to invest in rural education, and rural teacher-leaders across the county.

Rural Schools: An Underutilized Economic Development Strategy

Creatively addressing the rural teacher shortage remains a pillar of our work. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is central to creating sustainable rural communities.

  • Rural schools serve as a community hub for events, sports, healthcare, wrap-around services, celebration, and civic engagement

  • Rural schools are often the largest employers in small towns

  • Rural schools are the proving grounds where future rural-residents will learn to take pride in where they live, chart a course for their future, and invest in their community

  • Educators wear many hats, including local leadership, bringing social capital, innovation, and new ideas into rural communities

  • The success of local schools is often top of the list for attracting new families or businesses to a town

Towns that have lost their schools struggle to retain a vibrant main street without that central community anchor - it is easy to see how an investment in rural schools and educators is an investment in broader rural vitality. So, alongside our partners, we’ve done just that.

Flexible Funding - Rural Teacher Corps Growth

A 10 year survey conducted by the Ozarks Teacher Corps showed a ~90% rural teacher retention rate, with 100% of participants recommending rural teaching as a profession. RSC and our partners set out to build on this success by growing and adapting the Ozarks Teacher Corps model.

Group photo of the University of Wyoming's Rural Teacher Corps cohort.

Many Rural Teacher Corps early adopters have significantly grown their programs in the last 5 years (see Black Belt Teacher Corps out of University of West Alabama, Chico State’s CLASS program, and Monmouth College’s TARTANs).

RSC and partners continued to source a little seed money here, some small investments from generous individuals there, and modest challenge grants to launch thoughtful rural teacher initiatives. These efforts built the foundation for RSC’s Catalyst Initiative Fund - early dollars to serve as a vote of confidence to build local rural teacher initiatives.

In 2021, RSC received a generous investment from an anonymous donor who saw the power of rural schools and rural educators to serve as agents for positive change in their communities. With this investment in the Catalyst Initiative Fund, RSC distributed $25,000 planning grants to 13 institutions over the last 3 years to launch new Rural Teacher Corps Initiatives (read the recent 2023-2024 Catalyst Cohort Announcement that includes University of Maine, Ohio University, Bemidji University, East Carolina University, and Knox College).

The goals of this project were straightforward:

  • Address rural teacher shortages in a place-responsive program
    • The rural teacher shortage is localized by both regional needs, and subject matter - tailored solutions will be a better solution than a one-size fits all approach.

  • Provide flexible planning dollars to ensure sustainability and success
    • Building sustainable and impactful programs takes time, flexibility, and support - this program provides a vehicle for purposeful planning.

    • Early dollars serve as a “vote of confidence” to secure additional local/regional matching funds and inspire collaboration.

  • Organizations learn from one another in a cohort, and the broader RSC’s Rural Teacher Corps Learning Community

    • With 25+ programs, the goal is to prevent reinventing the wheel - this network shares advice on what is working (and not working), and highlights success stories.

So, is it working?

We had a chance to visit two emerging programs from the 2021 cohort, Wyoming Rural Teacher Corps (University of Wyoming), and a 2022 cohort program, Oregon Rural Teacher Corps (Eastern Oregon University).

These site visits, alongside stories and ongoing data collection, allows us to see the catalytic nature of these planning grants first hand.

Proof is in the Pudding: Oregon Matching Dollars and Local Buy-in

With Eastern Oregon University’s designation as Oregon’s official rural university, a rural teacher corps initiative was a fabulous way to build upon the institution’s existing commitment to rural, and build out a scholarship pathway to support future rural teachers.

As a recipient of one of the $25,000 planning grants from Rural Schools Collaborative, EOU was able to gain two matching grants from local funders, The Ford Foundation and the Roundhouse Foundation, to grow the seed money three fold in the first year.

  • This investment allowed scholarships and support for 12 Masters of Arts in Teaching candidates who committed to teaching in rural schools after graduation.

  • Flexible dollars also allowed EOU to build out the celebration and marketing of this new program, launching this fabulous promotional video of the Oregon Rural Teacher Corps:

  • This programming helped EOU secure a competitive grant from the state of Oregon to continue deepening this work.

    EOU already has additional matching dollars secured for year 2 of the program, and the Oregon Rural Teacher Corps is making an impact for the students enrolled, too:

    “I am a student at EOU working on my master’s degree in teaching. This entire year was possible for me because of the scholarship you helped fund. The Oregon Rural Teacher Corps scholarship made it so I could pursue this career while also taking care of my family. Therefore, from the bottom of my heart, thank you!”

    - 2022 Oregon Rural Teacher Corps participant at EOU

    Eastern Oregon University's Rural Teacher Corps meeting.

      “Your support of the Oregon Rural Teacher corps allows educators to collaborate and plan a better future for Oregon’s next generations. Thank you for your contribution and commitment to our mission to empower rural students through education”

      - 2022 Oregon Rural Teacher Corps participant at EOU

      So, the “vote of confidence” and building local capacity and buy-in is working. And, EOU is only in year 2… we can’t wait to see what comes in year 3 and beyond. This is a wonderful example of national philanthropy’s ability to spark regional funds - working in harmony to build sustainable programs for the long term.

        Collaboration Takes Flight: Teton Science Schools & Wyoming Rural Teacher Corps

        University of Wyoming was a 2021 Catalyst Grant planning grant recipient, and has leaned into the collaborative cohort model to help future rural teachers inspire one another. We got to visit the 2023 Wyoming Rural Teacher Corps cohort onsite as they learned about place-based education from the experts at Teton Science Schools:

        “I grew up near DC, extremely urban, and hated it. But halfway through high school, I moved to Newcastle here in Wyoming - we were outside of town and I really liked that. It seems like a whole, heck of a lot nicer to teach in rural areas - as a student in Newcastle, learning felt much more personalized because I actually knew my teachers closely, and I finally got the right curricular supports because there teachers that would go out of their way to help me find things that I was interested in. That’s why I want to be a rural teacher.”

        - University of Wyoming Rural Teacher Corps 2023 Participant

        University of Wyoming Rural Teacher Corps students participating in an activity.

        In addition to hiking through the Tetons to learn tips about outdoor activities to engage with their future students, the pre-service teachers completed a book study of “Teaching in Rural Places” (which includes a section on the I Am A Rural Teacher project!). Learning together and supporting one-another in a cohort model is a successful element of Rural Teacher Corps models.

        “I came from a really small school - my graduating class was 24 people. And I’m looking forward to being the only ag teacher in the school - I grew up on a fifth generation owned ranch. What stuck out to me about the rural teacher corps, it's like, these are like my people! This is where I've always been and this is where I plan on going in the future. We have the same interests in rural, and it just hit home for me.”

        In their book study and ongoing discussions, these young leaders discussed what their role as a future rural teacher meant in the digital media landscape, and gave thought provoking suggestions on how to strengthen the rural Educator Preparation Program for future cohorts… the future is BRIGHT!

        So, what’s next? An opportunity for Philanthropy & Community:

        These programs are promising, but to turn the corner into sustainability requires continued significant investments in rural place-based strategies - which would be a reversal from the historic underinvestment in these communities from key players in national philanthropy.

        National Philanthropy:
        A recent analysis from FSG, titled Rural America: Philanthropy’s Misunderstood Opportunity for Impact notes, “Rural areas are among the most disadvantaged in the country overall. In fact, 91 of the 100 most disadvantaged communities in the United States are rural. . . Rural communities face consistent inequities. . . Though rural areas contain 20% of the population, only 7% of funds from the top 1,200 major philanthropies goes to rural areas, with significant variation in the availability and investment of philanthropic funds across regions.”

        The analysis goes on to say, “There is an imperative for funders to increase their focus on rural areas, which will require a different way of working. Effective rural philanthropy challenges preconceptions about rural communities, focuses on building from within and impact over scale, and prioritizes co-creation.”

        This is exactly the spirit of projects like the Catalyst Initiative, and we are thankful for forward-thinking funders who have invested in this type of work. There always exists a tension between innovation, and measurable return on investment - but systemic change takes collaboration and multi-year investments to reveal the true impact. Initiatives that empower local rural stakeholders to be innovative, provide a safe space to learn, and share the opportunity with peers continue to be a priority.

        Where do we go from here?

        Rural Schools Collaborative is happy to connect donors and funders to rural-based, under-resourced institutions that could utilize planning grants. Modest investments (like these $25,000 planning grants) go far in rural communities, but are often challenging for national funders to commit to based on scale; this presents an opportunity for collaboration with intermediaries to provide authentic support to rural communities. For funders with capacity at a larger scale, organizations like Rural Schools Collaborative can also serve as intermediaries to coordinate cohorts across multiple organizations, while providing technical assistance, guidance, and reporting.

        And for the broader education community, we all have a role to play - from community members giving their time and resources to schools, to local foundations, higher education institutions, and PreK-12 partners - we all need to work together to ensure that every rural community​ has well-resourced ​schools ​​with ​empowered teachers and leaders who see a ​positive future for their community.

        Interested in learning more, or connecting with one of these programs? Please get in touch with RSC’s Executive Director, Taylor McCabe-Juhnke.

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