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UNL establishes rural education center

jbrehm2, July 17, 2009 | View original publication

UNL establishes rural education center

Nearly $10 million grant funds national rural education center at UNL

Lincoln, Neb. (July 17, 2009) – The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has received a nearly $10 million grant from the U.S. Department Education Institute of Education Sciences to establish the National Center for Research on Rural Education, the only one of its kind in the U.S.

With the five-year, $9,997,852 grant, the center will conduct cutting-edge rural education research to improve student learning in reading, science and math. Researchers will identify how to best provide professional development for teachers to infuse state-of-the-art instructional strategies in their classrooms and enhance student learning. Research on rural education is limited and the center will provide the infrastructure, leadership and expertise to focus on unique rural needs, said Susan Sheridan, Willa Cather Professor and professor of educational psychology who heads the new center.

“UNL is the ideal location for this center,” said UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman. “Nebraska has a proud tradition of rural education and strong schools are essential to our state’s future. UNL already has successful relationships with school districts statewide along with faculty expertise in research on teaching and learning.”

Researchers will study a fundamental question: What is the best way to provide professional development support to teachers in rural areas? Answers could guide improvements in professional development and instructional practices for rural teachers across Nebraska and the nation. Researchers are especially interested in strategies that help early elementary school teachers individualize reading instruction and help middle school teachers employ the best instructional approaches for teaching science.

Rural schools offer many advantages, including family involvement, community support and close relationships, Sheridan said. However, geographic isolation can hinder teachers’ access to formal professional development programs and limit informal peer mentoring that help sharpen their classroom skills. Teachers cite personal and professional isolation as the greatest disadvantage to working in rural schools.

“Rural teachers don’t always have access to the most up-to-date, research-based programs and strategies that are available in cities with universities and research centers closely aligned to the schools where the research is taking place,” she said. €�We hope our research can fill that gap.”

Researchers will work closely with rural schools to identify and test firsthand the most effective approaches for supporting teachers in rural settings. More than 500 Nebraska teachers will participate in this research through training, one-on-one coaching and practicing new research-based methods in their classrooms. The center will use various approaches and technologies to find the best ways to support rural teachers as they implement new strategies.

“Research conducted through this center will test alternative approaches to providing necessary experiences in rural schools that have limited access to the human, informational and material resources necessary to provide state-of-the-art-instruction to Nebraska students,” she added.

The payoffs could be far-reaching. Nationally, nearly 10 million youth attend school in rural areas. In Nebraska, almost 30 percent of students attend rural schools, and 87 percent of the state’s school districts are considered rural. At least 5,000 Nebraska students will benefit from their teachers’ involvement in this research.

“We are just now starting to understand the rural context as something that’s unique and distinct that needs to be addressed in its own right,” Sheridan said.

The center’s work began July 1. Initial activities include a national survey of professional development activities and teacher practices related to reading interventions, math instruction and science inquiry.

“This is a major interdisciplinary effort. This center brings together expertise from across our campus for comprehensive research addressing the needs of rural education,” said Marjorie Kostelnik, dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences.

The center will be housed within UNL’s Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools, a part of the College of Education and Human Sciences. Key collaborators are Todd Glover and Gina Kunz, research assistant professors, and Gwen Nugent, research associate professor, all with CYFS; James Bovaird, assistant professor of educational psychology; Jon Pedersen, professor of teaching, learning and teacher education; and Allen Steckelberg and Guy Trainin, both associate professors of teaching, learning and teacher education.

“This is an opportunity for UNL to be a leader in rural education nationwide,” said Prem S. Paul, vice chancellor for research and economic development. “Most importantly, Nebraska’s rural teachers, students and schools will be the first to benefit from this center’s work.”