Schools as the Soul of Rural Communities: An Interview with the Rural Schools Collaborative

This blog is part of a series of conversations with rural leaders that FSG is publishing in conjunction with the release of our report Rural America: Philanthropy’s Misunderstood Opportunity for Impact. In this conversation, FSG interviews Taylor McCabe-Juhnke, executive director of the Rural Schools Collaborative, a national nonprofit whose mission is to build sustainable rural communities through a keen focus on place, teachers, and philanthropy. Taylor describes the critical role that rural schools play in communities, the needs and strategies for supporting rural schools and educators, and how philanthropy can help.

Tell us about yourself and the Rural Schools Collaborative.

I’m Taylor McCabe-Juhnke, executive director of Rural Schools Collaborative. I spent my first 22 years in North Newton, Kansas, and come from a family of rural educators. My mom was a public school teacher, and her father was a rural principal. There is a funny story about my mom as an adolescent getting sent to the principal, who happened to be her father… I’ll spare you the long version, but folks who grow up in rural places can relate to that very small, interconnected community. My grandpa has since passed, and my mom has since retired from teaching, but their hard work and dedication to their students is a big reason why I do what I do.

Rural Schools Collaborative is a national nonprofit with a mission of building sustainable rural communities through a keen focus on place, teachers, and philanthropy. We were founded in 2015 by a group of volunteers, which included our outgoing director, Gary Funk. Much of RSC’s programs are based on initiatives piloted by the Missouri-based Community Foundation of the Ozarks. We have evolved into an emerging national leader that supports school and community connections and the development of teacher-leaders. We implement our mission-driven programs through a small staff and Regional Hub partners, which represent diverse geographic regions of the U.S.

Teacher advocacy is at the heart of our mission, and we are committed to elevating the voices of rural educators. In 2019, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we partnered with the National Rural Education Association to launch the I Am A Rural Teacher initiative. This digitally-based effort ranges from sharing the policy recommendations of rural teachers to new projects like our Teach Rural Job Board. This free public service, which already has had more than 500 jobs posted, specifically addresses the growing rural teacher shortage—something that poses a real threat to rural school communities.

What should national organizations know about rural schools and the role they play in their communities?

A healthy American future must include a thriving rural landscape, and public schools will be at the forefront of this effort.

As corporatization, consolidation, and budget cuts have reduced the number of rural small businesses, health care facilities, and social service programs, public schools are often the only remaining vestige of rural ‘institutional infrastructure.’ Public schools are also often one of the largest employers in rural communities. Therefore, if we are serious about developing sustainable rural communities, public education has to be in the middle of that conversation.

Another important thing to remember is that public schools hold the potential to attract caring young people back to rural regions. This is an issue of the utmost importance, as ‘bright flight’ has really taken a toll on many small towns and remote places. The loss of young people represents a double whammy to rural communities. Not only does it affect community growth and the local economy, but communities lose a large part of their collective ‘soul’ when the aspirations and energy of younger citizens are absent.

All of this culminates in the sense that rural schools are truly a bellwether for the overall health of a rural place or region. Schools bring people together, they provide a sense of purpose, and they create common ground, something that has largely vanished in many rural places. A thriving school really can make the difference in whether or not a community is moving forward or in a slow decline. Simply driving down Main Street of a small town that has lost its public school will tell this tale.

What are some of the greatest challenges that rural students and schools are facing? How have these challenges been shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Well for one, COVID-19 has exacerbated the rural teacher shortage. Rural America is approaching a very tough intersection—a crossroads where the undermining of public institutions meets an urgent and growing demand for rural teachers.

Secondly, COVID-19 has all too clearly illustrated the inequities that hamper rural education, especially when it comes to things like broadband access. We hope that this has been a wake-up call for those who determine the policy decisions that affect rural schools. Technology access and utilization will only become more important as the United States continues to see shifting populations from rural to more urban communities.

What approaches and innovations are most effective and promising for supporting rural schools?

Two approaches of the utmost importance are place-based education and intentional, rural-centric approaches to preparing rural teacher-leaders.

First, place-based education is particularly effective in rural places. Place-based teaching strategies bolster a student’s sense of place and they connect learning to the greater community. This is so important in rural places, where the prevailing media message to young people is that their towns are lackluster, uninteresting, or void of purpose. In fact, all too often bright rural students are encouraged to do well so that they can go somewhere else. Place-based education bolsters learning and promotes community stakeholdership.

Our Celia B. Godsil Grants in Place program supports innovative, place-based work by rural teachers and their students. In addition, Teton Science Schools is building out their Place Network, a group of forward-thinking rural schools that focus on place-based strategies. These approaches hold great potential for rural communities, as they develop more of an asset-centered mindset, as opposed to the current deficit thinking that holds sway in too many places.

Secondly, as a nation, we need to support and invest in every step of the rural teacher pathway, from recruitment to preparation to retention. Higher Ed institutions and philanthropy partners have a great role to play in supporting these types of ‘Rural Teacher Corps‘ efforts, and we consider it a national imperative. These initiatives are tailored to meet the needs of a respective region, but they share common attributes:

  • Developing networks of positive role models to encourage people to become rural teachers early on;
  • Reframing the rural narrative to include the positive aspects of the rural experience;
  • Promoting initiatives to recruit mid-career professionals who may be tied to a given community;
  • Seeking opportunities to formulate programs that include scholarship incentives for future teachers to commit to rural teaching placements;
  • Speaking to the community roles of educators by creating a more mission-driven dialogue, curriculum, and professional development.

How can rural schools serve as a catalyst for rural philanthropy? How can national funders engage?

In the same ways we ask rural students to engage in their communities, local communities must invest in their schools. At the individual level, how you vote or how you give charitably makes a difference, but if more community members would truly immerse themselves in their local schools, better decision-making and stronger funding would most likely follow. Volunteer in classrooms, graciously host new teachers, make ‘school’ part of your life as much as possible.

Personally, I’ve found education is one of the areas that truly brings people together from across the political aisles; rural communities can and should use that strength-based, collaborative approach to support their local schools and students for the future of their communities. How will we support and train our future local farmers? Our future local bankers? Our future local teachers? These should be the questions that unify a community and funding should follow accordingly.

Specifically, folks can consider starting school foundations (which have the potential to attract outside dollars), or work with regional community foundations, which have the capacity to support the development of local philanthropic infrastructure.

Finally, as this FSG report underscores eloquently, large-scale national funders simply must commit to investing in rural. Even modest charitable investments can drive significant change in rural areas.

Here are some other simple ways that donors can help rural education:

  • Donors can support the Rural Schools Collaborative, or RSC can connect donors to rural-based, under-resourced organizations that could utilize grants.
  • Additionally, the Rural Teacher Corps Network consists of more than 16 diverse teacher preparation programs, who would be grateful for the support.
  • Rural school advocacy is of the utmost importance, and we encourage folks to learn more about the National Rural Education Association.
  • Regional community foundations are an excellent way to support rural public school systems. Community foundations provide a myriad of avenues for donors to invest in public school foundations, scholarship support, or related support programs. The Council on Foundations has an excellent tool for finding community foundations that serve rural regions.

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