Over a decade since its inception, a Community Foundation of the Ozarks Inc. scholarship program is expanding to universities beyond the Springfield area to attract more talent into teaching.
Starting with the 2022-23 school year, the Ozarks Teacher Corps program is accepting applications from education students at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin and Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau. The program, which seeks to recruit new teachers to rural school districts, offers participants $2,000 per year for up to two years. In return, the scholarship recipients must commit to teach in a rural school district for three years following graduation.
Students at Missouri State University and Drury University currently have students in the 10-person cohort for the program, which originated in 2010. The program creates a network for young teachers to learn from each other and rural education leaders, said CFO spokesperson Aaron Scott.
“The goal of the Ozarks Teacher Corps is to help provide a pipeline for really strong teaching students to either go back to their hometown or another rural community that needs a teacher and make sure they’re properly prepared for teaching in a rural area,” he said.
It’s a pipeline that continues to need filling. For the past six years, Missouri has reported an 11% turnover rate for teachers without replacements, exceeding the 8% national average, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Schools are then forced to leave positions vacant or fill them with underqualified replacements. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 53% of all school districts are in rural areas and serve over 9 million students.
This year’s cohort for Ozarks Teacher Corps gathered March 25 for a professional development day at Springfield Botanical Gardens, where they learned place-based curriculum from Leslie Cook of Jackson Hole, Wyoming-based Teton Science Schools. Additionally, Glenwood R-8 School District educators Bridget Larsen and Christy Frazier spoke about teaching children of low-income families in rural settings.
“One of the primary components that we value very highly for rural educators is place-based education,” CFO’s Scott said. “That provides a framework of taking the lessons students learn in the classroom and connecting it with the places where they live.”
Noah Collins, Melody Meeks and Anna Riley, all students at MSU-West Plains, were among cohort members at the gathering – one of two program participants are required to attend each year. The three plan to teach in West Plains upon graduation.
“I like the support this program has. It’s very supportive for new teachers,” Riley said, adding she, Collins and Meeks are each pursuing bachelor’s degrees in elementary education.
Meeks, who is set to graduate in May, already has a job lined up. She’s been hired at Howell Valley Elementary School in her hometown of West Plains.
“I’m a second-grade teacher and will start that in August,” she said.
Meeks’ new job adds to an already high placement rate for Ozarks Teacher Corps.
A 2019 report by Galesburg, Illinois-based nonprofit Rural Schools Collaborative noted some Ozarks Teacher Corps successes. The report said the CFO program had a 92% placement rate, adding nearly 75% were still teaching in the school districts that hired them. It also had awarded roughly $800,000 in scholarships and placed more than 60 teachers in rural Ozarks schools in central and southern Missouri.
The Ozarks Teacher Corps program originated through a $1.8 million endowment by the Chesley and Flora Lea Wallis Trust and will continue to be funded in perpetuity, Scott said.
Beyond the Corps
Mykie Nash and Blane Redus are among the program’s dozens of alums. Nash, who started as a teacher for the first three years of her education career, is now in her seventh year as an administrator for the Aurora R-8 School District. Redus has four years of teaching experience, including his last three for Marionville schools.
Nash was in the inaugural class of Ozarks Teacher Corps, graduating in 2012 from MSU with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. While starting her teaching career, she earned a master’s degree in school administration followed by a doctorate in educational administration, both from Lindenwood University. She credits CFO’s program with helping steer her career path, noting she was a nontraditional student who graduated college in her early 30s.
“I thought it would be a benefit to me because I knew I would go toward a rural school when I was looking for a teaching career,” said Nash, who is in her second year as principal at Robinson School. “What I didn’t realize is the exposure it would give me in learning from leaders in other school districts we were able to visit. That was a nice benefit.”
Aside from Springfield, CFO’s Scott said the program’s past professional development days have included visits to Thomasville, West Plains and Willow Springs.
While Nash didn’t embark on the road to an educational career straight out of high school, Redus, a special education teacher, said his path was much clearer. His family is full of educators, including both his parents and a brother. In fact, he now works in Marionville with mother Amy Redus, who teaches kindergarten, and his wife, Caitlyn, a fifth-grade teacher.
“I went to school at Marionville all while growing up,” he said, noting his caseload is for preschool through second-grade students. “I love the school here and it was really good to me, so I wanted to give back.”
Aside from the scholarship money, which helped him graduate from MSU debt-free in 2018, Redus said the program is a great networking tool.
“It was just nice to hear different aspects of why people like to go back and teach in small schools,” he said. “You hear a lot about people wanting to go to Republic, Nixa and Springfield, but it’s good to hear the benefits from other students about why they want to come back home.”
Both Nash and Redus said their school districts always have teacher openings, adding it makes Ozarks Teacher Corps important to attract attention to a profession with a base pay of $25,000 in Missouri, which ranks it last in the nation. Gov. Mike Parson is advocating to increase the pay to $38,000, a proposal which is under consideration by legislators as part of the fiscal 2023 budget that must be passed by end of session in May.
Nash said she’s trying to hire for several open positions, noting one of her candidates called the day before the interview to say she just accepted another job offer. It’s a familiar refrain in the rural education field.
“The needs are great,” she said. “It is scary but hopefully a program like Ozarks Teacher Corps can provide a systematic support system for those young teachers to feel like they can get that assistance if they do choose to go into rural education.”
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