Blue Dogs Host Roundtable Discussion on Rural Education and Workforce Development

October 9, 2020 by Sara Wilkerson
Rep. Kendra Horn. (Photo by Mary Horn Photography)

WASHINGTON – This week the Blue Dog Coalition hosted a roundtable discussion with experts in the K-12, higher and tribal education fields on rural education and workforce development. Blue Dog member Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Okla., moderated the roundtable discussion on behalf of the Coalition. 

Horn recently introduced the bipartisan-supported Coronavirus College Access and Completion Emergency Relief Act, which would provide emergency funding to the Federal TRIO Programs to support access to counseling, tutoring, mentoring and technology to help students enter and complete college. 

Horn said, “I was grateful to speak with rural educators and education leaders to hear directly about the unique challenges rural schools and colleges face. 

“The quality of a child’s education should not be based on their zip code or if they grew up in a rural or urban area. COVID-19 has highlighted this divide. Many of our rural students from kindergarten to technical training to college are losing out on a quality education because of a lack of resources. 

“In Congress, I am working to ensure all students receive a quality education. This necessary investment is key to the long-term development of our rural communities.” 

For the roundtable discussion, the Blue Dog Coalition featured the following guests on the panel: 

  • Dr. Monte Randall, dean of Academic Affairs, College of the Muscogee Nation
  • Dr. Alissa Young, president, Hopkinsville Community College
  • Tamara Hiler, director of education, Third Way
  • Dr. Allen Pratt, executive director, National Rural Education Association

Each of the panelists discussed the challenges facing rural and tribal education communities in the context of the work they do at their respective organizations and institutions. 

Dr. Young spoke about how rural community colleges are generally underfunded by the federal government and how there is a great need for federal funding to give students access to resources such as broadband access, economic development, job training, and student financial assistance. 

Dr. Randall detailed how the College of the Muscogee Nation became the institution it is today and how the college has risen to the challenge of teaching in a virtual environment. 

Randall said accessibility to the internet has been his institution’s biggest challenge, yet emphasized that despite this challenge, “Part of our strength of our tribal college is our culture, language, and culture, so you know… we have excelled in student engagement, faculty engaging with our students. Being online has been a tremendous challenge to everyone, faculty staff, and students.” 

Dr. Pratt from the National Rural Education Association said his organization has also focused on the challenge of broadband access as well as teacher shortages amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

To tackle these issues, Pratt said the NREA launched the “I am a Rural Teacher” initiative in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to bring public awareness of the challenges of teaching in rural areas as well as to showcase rural teacher recruitment methods. 

Tamara Hiler from Third Way, a centrist think tank, discussed the need for rural students to be given more opportunities for workforce development. 

According to research from Third Way, Hiler said that rural students typically have less access to apprenticeships due to the lack of recruitment from higher education institutions, and fewer employers in rural areas give out apprenticeships for young professionals. 

Pivoting the discussion from general challenges faced for rural education, Rep. Horn asked questions to the panel focusing more on specific topics such as teacher retention, adult learning, and school completion. 

For teacher retention in rural K-12 education, Pratt said, “We have to treat this as a workforce development issue and what I mean by that for us and rural schools is that number one… we need to grow from our own, recruit from our own ranks. 

“[We need to take] students who may be interested in becoming a teacher while in high school and middle school and train those students and enable them to establish a pipeline with community colleges and four-year universities to create a teacher training program that allows them to come back and do training prior to leaving. That’s one aspect.” 

Pratt went on to say that teacher pay “is not the only reason teachers are leaving” the teaching profession, but that other factors like the lack of professional and leadership development are key reasons why the country is experiencing a teacher shortage in rural communities. 

He suggested that to combat teacher shortages, school districts should consider recruiting teachers from urban and suburban areas who are looking to change their lifestyle and teaching environments. 

In terms of adult learners returning to the classroom amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Young said her institution increased its number of hybrid class offerings and also conducted research to better understand what resources her adult learning students needed most. 

“The online learning piece [of higher education] can be part of the scenario [of returning to school] but it cannot be the only piece. Many adult learners felt they needed that face-to-face component and that services that would help support them to be successful,” said Young. 

Young further outlined services such as tutoring assistance and advisory assistance would also help adult learners too. 

“Those kinds of services are very important,” added Young. 

Horn posed a question about the investments students will need to not only stay in school but also graduate from high school and college. 

Randall said career training and career placement are good areas to start in student retention and graduation. 

Echoing Randall, Hiler said that not only are these areas needed for investment but that better data should be provided to students so they can make informed decisions on the institutions in which they choose to study. 

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