Montana State Receives $2.5 Million Grant For Project To Strengthen Rural Education

BOZEMAN - Montana State University's ongoing efforts to strengthen rural education across the state received a boost recently with a $2.5 million grant from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies.

The grant, which runs for two and a half years, will fund the second iteration of a program called Advancing Support, Preparation and Innovation in Rural Education, or ASPIRE. The project is housed in MSU's Center for Research on Rural Education and aims to establish a blueprint for attracting, preparing, developing and retaining teachers for rural schools and communities in Montana.

The work builds off a previous $1.5 million grant from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies awarded to MSU in 2021 for the first phase of the work, known as ASPIRE 1.0.

"In keeping with Montana State University's land-grant mission, MSU's Center for Research on Rural Education designed the ASPIRE project to address the alarming rural teacher shortage and ensure that students in small, rural and remote schools and communities are taught by well-prepared and supported teachers," the researchers wrote in a description of their current project, which they are calling ASPIRE 2.0. Jayne Downey, Center for Research on Rural Education director and Department of Education professor, is the project's lead researcher.

The researchers noted that Montana's rural communities are experiencing severe difficulty recruiting and retaining well-prepared teachers. They pointed to state-level data published last year showing that 661 out of 825 Montana schools have been impacted by a critical shortage of quality educators.

"Building on our previous grant, we will work to reduce the current teacher shortage through increasing the number of well-prepared rural teachers and strengthening mentoring processes for new rural teachers," they wrote.

ASPIRE 2.0 is divided into three parts: The Rural Teacher Pathways program, the MentorMT program and the Rural Teacher Resource Hub.

Rural Teacher Pathways

The Rural Teacher Pathways program is a sequence of immersive rural school and community clinical experiences for undergraduate students and high school students who are considering careers as teachers. Over the life of the grant, nearly 700 undergraduate and high school students will participate.

First-year MSU prospective teachers can engage in observing and assisting with instruction in one- and two-room K-8 schoolhouses. Second-year students have opportunities to spend several days visiting a rural school and community. Third-year students may participate in a weeklong experience, spending 8 to 10 hours per day in a rural school completing duties typical of full-time teachers. Finally, fourth-year students have the option of completing their 15 weeks of student teaching in a rural community, where they build relationships inside and outside the classroom and learn to embrace the nuances of rural living.

To support students while they are on campus, MSU will offer community-building experiences, rural programming and opportunities for special projects.

"We're looking to build community within community," said Joe Hicks, one of the researchers and assistant dean in the College of Education, Health and Human Development.

"We're looking to introduce students to major support (systems) from day one," added Marcie Reuer, another researcher and an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Education.

Rural Teacher Pathways will also offer a program for rural high school students who are exploring teaching and other future college and career options that includes an online learning community and an MSU summer camp opportunity.

MentorMT

The second part of ASPIRE 2.0, known as MentorMT, will provide expert, one-on-one mentoring for new and underprepared teachers who are filling positions in rural classrooms. The program is designed especially for teachers who are in their first or second year; on a provisional license; under emergency authorization with limited preparation; teaching outside their licensed grade level or subject area; or teaching on an international visa.

"What we're seeing in this program is a way to address isolation that really changes the teaching experience for a rural teacher," said Jennifer Luebeck, one of the researchers and a research professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences in the College of Letters and Science.

Rural Teacher

Resource Hub

ASPIRE 2.0 will develop a resource hub for Montana's rural teachers, containing things like instructional materials and professional development support.

"We've noticed that a lot of available materials for teachers are not written with rural in mind; a lot of those materials are very urban-centric," Downey said. "We have an opportunity here to bring together resources that are meaningful and a good fit for rural teachers and their communities."

The researchers said they hope that the Rural Teacher Pathways program, Mentor MT program and Rural Teacher Resource Hub lead to significant, lasting changes in rural education in Montana.

Downey added that she hopes the work leads to more people choosing a rural educator path.

"We want them to see this as not just a job, but as something more," she said. "Rural educators also become community members and contributors to these important rural places that people call home."

 

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