“It may seem like our part of the world’s education issues are forgotten about,” says Glenwood Superintendent Wayne Stewart. “But I want to assure people we do have input.”
Stewart is on a mission to address the challenges faced by rural educators, not only in the Ozarks and Missouri, but across the U.S. He is one of five people who represent Missouri on a federal board of educators tasked with using research and evidence to improve educational programs and student performance.
The organization, the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) program, is comprised of representatives from 10 regions and has brought together educational stakeholders to improve academic outcomes for more than 50 years.
Stewart represents the Central Region, which serves Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.
One of his current projects is an early-childhood development study. The hope is that it will show factors that can produce favorable results in young children and be predictors of future success. Stewart says he thinks early childhood education is crucial to give young children the boost they need to help them succeed later in school and in life.
In his work with REL, he has come to identify a number of issues that, while not entirely unique to rural schools, seem to affect many. Among them, he says, school funding and attracting and retaining quality teachers are just some of the major challenges plaguing rural schools nationwide.
According to the National Education Association, a labor union representing educational professionals, over 4,000 rural schools in the U.S. lack reliable funding. The organization attributes this to factors including a dwindling or stagnant tax base or large economically-disadvantaged populations.
About 23% of Howell County’s population lives below the federal poverty line, according to U.S. Census Bureau data taken between 2012 and 2017.
Public schools receive most of their funding from local taxes. In rural areas, especially those with high poverty levels, schools have a hard time funding their programs and paying teacher salaries, said Stewart.
Thirty-nine percent of rural schools struggle to fill even basic teaching positions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the data-collecting arm of the United States Department of Education.
Stewart acknowledges that attracting and properly training new teachers is hard in many rural areas, but says that, thanks in part to Missouri State University-West Plains’ teacher education program, the effects of the shortage haven’t been felt as severely as in other rural areas.
“We have had to do more with less for a long time and that can lead to problems,” he said. “We just need to do a better job of letting people know the issues we face.”
Stewart encourages people to email him if they have ideas for solutions or have identified problems which need to be addressed at email@example.com.
The REL program has reference desk service known as “Ask A REL” and can help answer questions about education or provide references or referrals. For more information about REL visit ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs.