Girl with protective goggles learning technology, robotics and electronics in the Secondary School lab

Introducing the Rural IL Career & Technical Education Project

A fundamental goal of education is providing learners with the knowledge and wisdom to understand themselves and their place in the world. Fulfilling this grand mission has become increasingly essential as traditional indicators for sense-of-self, such as  the notions of “work” and “community,” have changed so rapidly. Our local schools are now tasked with not only providing education, but extending opportunities for students to build their social networks and career pathways as well. This is no easy task, especially for rural and small districts where many societal and economic issues have left schools in a dire situation, all of which AIRSS fights to address.

Yet, there is great cause to be hopeful. Through innovative career and technical education (CTE) programs, schools can provide a new educational experience that is learner-centered and driven, community-focused, and interdisciplinary. While shop class likely comes to mind first, CTE today encompasses 16 different clusters of nearly any career conceivable. Moreover, CTE courses today more purposefully focus on job shadowing, internships, apprenticeships, site visits, research projects, industry credentialing, and community engagement–all while learning and applying core language, math, science, and social skills.

For rural and small schools in particular, the potential of these programs cannot be overstated. If implemented and funded fully, rural CTE programs stand to bolster the capacity of schools to provide students high-quality and individualized education. In the process, students will forge the bedrock of their future social and professional lives while supporting local businesses and industry.

In order to make this vision a reality, we have to voice our successes and struggles with providing CTE in rural areas. Thanks to a new intergovernmental agreement between the Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools and the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), we now have precisely this opportunity through the Rural IL CTE Project.

In this new project, AIRSS will support schools in providing a high level comprehensive needs assessment and equity gap analysis of CTE programs in rural districts. The goal for this work is to help rural schools communicate the difficulties of building CTE pathways and complete asset mapping assessment of current programming and resources. 

To accomplish this, the project is composed of the following five core components:

  1. Rural CTE Survey: AIRSS is administering a short survey asking rural districts to reflect on their current CTE programming, and to share the struggles they have with sustaining and growing it as well as the successes they would like to highlight.
  2. CTE Advisory Council: We are convening a small group of leading CTE practitioners and experts to analyze the data collected for the project as well as to carry on conversations uncovering key elements of the CTE process that need to be addressed. This group consists of teachers, professors, nonprofit advocates, local business leaders, national experts, and regional CTE organizations.
  3. Focus Groups: Based on the survey results and the council conversations, AIRSS will establish a series of smaller focus groups to dive deeper into those handful of issues most pressing to rural districts, this will include transitions and partnerships with local community colleges and CTE teacher professional development.
  4. Rural CTE Technical Assistance: Already, AIRSS appreciates that finding, keeping, and enriching outstanding educators is a central problem to building strong CTE programs. To help, we are creating a central database that compiles CTE resources and assistance organizations in one, easy to access and use website. We will also be creating a direct help line for CTE educators, councilors, and school administrators from across the state seeking assistance or recommendations for their programming.  
  5. Illinois Rural CTE Asset Map: Last, we will be creating an interactive map that visualizes the CTE system in Illinois, including Education for Employment regions, community colleges, Area Career Centers, and other key CTE support assets. The map will also include overlays of regional labor market trends for each of the 16 CTE career clusters. The goal of the map is to provide rural schools yet another easy-to-use resource to bolster their CTE offerings.

Career and technical education is not simply an extracurricular to fill time or an alternative to “regular” education. CTE courses today can be integrated, interdisciplinary, and holistic education opportunities that empower students to discover their personal and professional identities all while contributing to the liveliness of their hometown communities. Strong, equitably funded CTE programs are an imperative for rural and small schools, and AIRSS is excited to advocate for building and sustaining such programs through this unique project with ISBE. If you would like to have your district’s CTE experiences seen and heard, or if you would like to learn more about the Rural IL CTE Project, please reach out to AIRSS Program Director John Glasgow at:

Rural districts sharing their perspectives.
Rural districts share their thoughts about CTE and policy at the 2023 Illinois School Board Association’s Joint Conference.

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