Rural Trust Launches Regional Center

Last Updated: August 27, 2011

This article appeared in the August 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

Last month the Rural Trust announced the launch of the Center for Midwestern Initiatives (CMI), which will work to build a regional infrastructure to support rural schools and communities. The center is based in Missouri and will serve school and communities in several Midwestern states.

“Schools are the lynchpin of any effort to secure the economic future of rural communities,” says Gary Funk, the CMI’s Director. “Strengthening public education and the connection between rural schools and their communities benefits everyone.”

The regional emphasis will support schools with similar cultural circumstances and will help focus collaborative efforts among educators and local residents, non-profit organizations, colleges, and foundations.

“We are very pleased to have Gary Funk spearheading this effort,” said Doris Terry Williams, Executive Director of the Rural Trust and Director of the Capacity Building Program. “This is an exciting opportunity for the Rural Trust to expand its work and to work more intensively with schools and communities.”

The CMI will focus on place-based education, teacher recruitment and training, and building philanthropic assets geared to rural communities.

Place-based learning

“We will be working hard to promote the value of place-based education,” says Funk who adds that tying academic curriculum to real-world community-based work helps students be more engaged and achieve at higher levels and it builds the community and its prospects. “This is the kind of education that ultimately benefits everyone. It is especially important in rural communities that are re-orienting the way they think about their futures.”

Williams adds, “Place-based learning has always been a key emphasis of the Rural Trust and a focus of our work in the Capacity Building Program. Well-designed place-based learning is proven to increase student learning. It also strengthens communities by engaging local residents in the learning process and by enabling students to do work that has a direct and positive impact on the community itself.”

The CMI plans a variety of efforts to promote place-based education, including professional development opportunities for teachers, administrators, and community members, and an online community of individuals and groups involved in place-based work.

Teacher training, recruitment, and retention

Place-based education will also be incorporated into the CMI’s teacher recruitment and training efforts. Those efforts will forge partnerships with colleges and universities and build on prior work in the region initiated by both the Rural Trust and the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, where Funk served as President before taking the position with the Center.

“Rural schools in the Midwest, like rural schools in other parts of the country, face many challenges related to recruiting and retaining teachers,” says Funk. “We are building contacts with colleges to get them more interested in preparing teachers to work in rural schools.”

Funk suggests a number of ways that teacher-training institutions could strengthen the preparation of teachers for rural schools, including rural practicums, training in technology and distance education, place-based approaches, and scholarships and incentives to work in rural settings — with a focus on enabling rural students to return to rural schools to work. “Our hope is to launch a ‘soft’ collaborative of colleges and to create a more coordinated rural teacher corps. The CMI could support these activities and provide services to the colleges, including workshops and classes related to rural and place-based education.”

Williams notes that the Rural Trust has a history of working with teacher colleges in Arkansas and Missouri to promote programmatic opportunities for teachers and teacher candidates to learn about and gain experiences in rural schools. “The teacher training and support component of this initiative is critical to rural schools where teacher recruitment and retention are real hurdles and where teachers often face challenges and opportunities that differ from those in urban and suburban schools,” she says.

Building philanthropic assets

The CMI will work to address the long-standing challenge of attracting philanthropic investment in rural education. “It’s important to develop alternative revenues geared to rural education, so building the philanthropic assets of rural schools is essential,” says Funk.

He explains that the CMI will use several approaches toward this end. “Grant-making foundations have a long history of under-investing in rural places, so we want to influence them to direct more of their giving to rural schools and communities.” 

In addition, the CMI will work with schools and communities to build skills in grant seeking and to increase the competitiveness of their grant applications both collectively and at the individual school and community level.

Finally, the CMI will work with local communities to identify and retain local capital resources within their communities. This is a critical issue in some communities, especially when older residents whose children no longer live locally die. Very often the residents’ property is sold and their financial reserves are transferred to the cities where the children live — often because there is no community alternative to which to make bequests or in which to invest.

“The building of school-related charitable assets combats capital flight, one of the biggest threats to rural economies,” says Funk, adding that local community and school foundations can be institutions that create legacies for donors and benefit both heirs and local residents.

Open flexible model

The Center’s collaborative model will enable partners to work together in flexible and mutually beneficial ways. “It’s an organization where people can opt in,” explains Funk. “It’s an open network, a group of people that care deeply pledging to work with each other. It’s not overly prescriptive.”

The open, on-the-ground model also provides a network for distributing research and policy information important to educators and to rural advocates. An online component, set to launch this fall, will enable students, teachers, and communities to tell their stories and share their perspectives on the work.

Funk says that a regional center enables rural communities and schools to identify issues and put together responses that make sense in the local and regional context. “The Rural Trust is a national catalyst for creating regional infrastructure to support rural education,” says Funk. “And, that ultimately benefits the mission of the Rural Trust, to help rural schools and communities grow better together.”

Read more from the August 2011 Rural Policy Matters.