New Center for Rural Education at Missouri State is intended to advocate and problem solve for small town school districts

Published: Jun. 9, 2023 at 6:11 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - With a ribbon cutting on Friday, Missouri State University took up a cause that has not been addressed by any state-supported office or university program in the past.

“This is the first center of its kind in Missouri, and we’re very excited to take on this challenge,” said Co-Director Dr. Diana Piccolo of the Center for Rural Education that opened Friday morning at Missouri State’s College of Education in Hill Hall.

The idea for a hub to organize and promote rural school district outreach and partnerships came after MSU officials visited with rural school district teachers across the state.

“It really reinforced for us the need to expand our commitment to rural schools,” said Dr. Barri E. Tinkler, the Dean of the College of Education.

“We need to develop a sustainable, high-quality support system both academically and monetarily to help these rural schools,” Piccolo said.

Among the audience in attendance for the ribbon-cutting was a contingent of representatives from the Rural Schools Collaborative, a national non-profit organization based in Illinois who also work to strengthen small-town schools and their communities.

“In Missouri over 70 percent of schools identify as rural,” said Taylor McCabe-Juhnke, the Executive Director of the Rural Schools Collaborative. “The school is often the heartbeat of the community and teachers not only offer a lot of social capital but also community leadership. So when you think about a teacher shortage, in particular a rural teacher shortage, that’s a great indicator that the community might be in trouble.”

Among the Missouri State center’s goals is to not only create teacher pipelines to the smaller school districts but to find ways to keep them happy during a time when burnout and frustration result in around 30 percent of teachers quitting within the first five years of entering the field.

Obviously, one way to attract and keep teachers in smaller districts is to increase salaries to make them more competitive with larger districts.

“You put more money anywhere, and it’s going to help,” said Center for Rural Education Co-Director Dr. Rhonda Bishop. “So we’re looking at writing grants. That’s one of our roles, is to look for resources to support them.”

“Salary is one of the big factors but actually feeling connected to school culture and leadership and having it be a good value fit is the top reason a lot of rural teachers are leaving the field,” McCabe-Juhnke said.

“They just don’t feel valued,” Piccolo added. “That’s why I think it’s important that teachers know they have a voice that is appreciated and respected. So one of the goals for the center is just getting people to talk and communicate with each other in an atmosphere of collaboration.”

The center will also be working with rural districts in other aspects like improving technology availability as their overall goal is to be a mouthpiece and advocate for smaller schools that don’t have the clout or resources to get what it takes to serve their students.

“It comes down to what do you need and how can we help,” McCabe-Juhnke said. “And that’s needed all across the United States. But there is a sense of ‘We want people who live here, care about us, and are willing to listen to us, to help us build this.’”

As for how they’ll judge their success?

“We want to make partnerships that are sustainable,” Bishop answered. “So if we are able to collaborate and support schools by helping them navigate any of these educational situations that come up, I would call that a success.”

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