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More universities are opening programs to prepare graduates for careers in rural areas where schools struggle to attract teachers. The programs introduce students to the unique aspects of working in rural communities and try to ease young professionals into a lifestyle that may be different from the one they’ve always known. The need is clear: many rural schools suffer from chronic teacher shortages in part because they can’t compete with higher salaries offered by urban districts.
At California State University, Chico, the university took advantage of a grant to roll out a Rural Teacher Residency program from 2009 until June of this year to delve deeper into the unique aspects of rural schools and introduce aspiring teachers to rural communities. This year, the program was folded into the university’s regular teacher preparation program to introduce all students to certain principles of rural education. The Hechinger Report spoke to Ann Schulte and Rebecca Justeson from CSU Chico about the program.
Q: Why did the rural residency begin and how was it different from a traditional teacher education program?
Schulte: The intention was to give a candidate a deep experience in a school spending an entire school year as a resident in a rural community. They would be learning every aspect of that school site, the communities, parents, the workings of the school, and they would be taking on a co-teaching role with an experienced mentor teacher.
Justeson: [In the other tracks,] candidates had two placements, two grade levels, two schools. They wouldn’t have the deep relationship, the connection to the site…One of the things about preparing them for a rural context is having them spend a whole year in one community.
Schulte: We’re trying to make everything now about the rural context. It’s really our niche. [Students] talk to their community members, study the area around the school, think about the resources that are available and they’re really expected to immerse.
Q: What are the most important things aspiring teachers need to learn about rural schools?
Justeson: There’s an emphasis in the program on being strength based in general. Rural really is an underserved population, that’s what we try to teach.
Sculte: It’s about learning the community but it’s also about acknowledging what the community offers. A lot of the literature about rural education is really deficit based: ‘They’re backward, you have to leave a rural community to make it.’ We work a lot on trying to help [candidates see those strengths], whether they come from a rural or urban or suburban background, because sometimes people come from those [rural] communities and they have a negative perception of their community and say ‘I left because I needed to get out.’
Q: How has Cal State Chico’s teacher education program changed because of the school’s experience with the Rural Teacher Residency program?
Justeson: The idea was that the funding [for the residency program] served as an opportunity for us to implement best practices in our rural context… Ultimately we knew that after the funding ended, we would be making changes to our main Multiple Subjects Program to reflect what we had learned about what was most effective… One of the greatest aspects of [the Rural Teacher Residency program] was that we formed deep partnerships with local, rural school teachers and administrators. Having established partnerships was very important in understanding how to best prepare teachers to work in our local school communities.
Finally, although always a focus for us, I do believe the grant also enhanced our focus on better serving underserved students as the close work with school partners deepened our appreciation for student needs.
Schulte: The residency in secondary education, it doesn’t have it in the title, but the cohort is placed in rural districts and [the program] is teaching what I taught in the Rural Teacher Residency. We’re still doing the work around rural, it isn’t just happening in a Rural Teacher Residency.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.