Training for Rural Vitality: Reflecting on the First Year of the Rural IL CTE Project

I am a huge proponent for the power of our small towns and country places. As a product of a small town in West Central Illinois myself, I feel the struggles we have faced in a social and economic system that does not regard rural places as much more than either a backward anachronism that is slowly dying or a romantic bastion of quaint values. Both extremes miss the point, and further blind us from meeting the challenges we face head on by working together to use our local assets for local good. 

Our rural communities are full of all sorts of assets: social, financial, environmental, organizational, and more. Perhaps none is greater than our public school system. In many cases, K12 schools are the last, major public institution we have, and their role extends far beyond just educating kids. Rural schools are a focal point and foundation for the community, and when they are innovative they provide students, staff, and community members with the tools and power to invigorate the places they call home.

Although this is my personal philosophy for why I do what I do, it also grounds the vision of the Rural IL CTE Project. Over the past year, the Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools (AIRSS) has had the great privilege of working with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and the Western Illinois University Seymour Center for Rural Education (CRE) to conduct a first-of-its-kind statewide review of the needs and equity gaps in rural CTE programs. More than a programmatic audit, this effort was a chance for rural schools and communities to share their experiences and perspectives so that AIRSS, ISBE, and the CRE can offer targeted technical assistance in response. This is essential not only because it helps rural school leaders and teachers provide the very best for their students, but career and technical education has the potential to unlock the capabilities and imaginations of students to the benefit for the future vitality of rural communities. To put it simply, robust and resilient rural CTE sustains a robust and resilient rural landscape. Given the challenges our hometowns face on seemingly every front, we need every chance we can take, and CTE is one such chance.

“Career and technical education” or, more traditionally, vocational education has historically meant classes in the skilled trades, manual occupations, or hobby arts aimed at so-called “low academic” students to give them something to do while their peers are gearing up for college. While CTE still encompasses the mechanical and technical trades, this disparaging bias against early professional and career exposure still plagues public education in every place, rural or urban. When we view CTE as little more than an elective designed for students with “deviant behaviors” or “academic apathy,” then we’re not only doing a disservice to those “outlying” students but truly all students. CTE today is an opportunity for every student, college-bound or otherwise, to earn professional and life skills that will inevitably set them up for success across their entire life. Moreover, it is a chance for all students to begin exploring what they want to do here and now instead of graduating them on to pay for career exploration in college or become trapped in cycles of minimum wage service positions with little realistic means of training upward. But even deeper still, rural CTE programs that offer every student the chance to learn professional skills in partnership with local businesses, industries, and assets are directly contributing to the future longevity of that same community. This is the grander vision for the Rural IL CTE Project, and with the completion of our first year of the work we are one step closer to realizing it with our rural partners.

Yet, the Rural IL CTE Project did not begin with this transformative vision for rural education and communities. Instead, this first year of the project was focused on building a baseline of data about rural CTE programming for action in future years. Since October 2023, we engaged 241 of the most rural and highest-need districts in Illinois, conducted 48 individual meetings and site visits, and hosted over 20 hours of in-depth discussions on rural CTE. We were able to work with rural schools in every region of Illinois and engage organizations at every level from local to the state. In addition to working with schools themselves, we spent considerable time working with community colleges, Education for Employment Regional Delivery Systems, Area Career Centers, state agencies, and industry partners and associations. All of these interactions were captured in two state-wide surveys targeting rural school leaders and teachers, six advisory council meetings attended by a diverse group of CTE educators and experts, and four focus group conversations. All of this activity led to the creation and accumulation of 281 documents, spreadsheets, recordings, maps, and resources all aimed at explaining the status of rural CTE programming, and pointing the way forward for how to better support it.

Specifically, we had two primary objectives for this project: provide a systematic report on the needs and equity gaps of rural CTE programs with recommendations for addressing those barriers, and offer direct technical support to rural schools. As the first such attempt in rural Illinois of its kind, we came to realize that the task ahead was much larger, deeper, and more complex than a single year of a single effort could hope to achieve. Nonetheless, in collaboration with countless rural and small districts and partners we were able to find that serious funding, resource, staffing, and policy issues restrict the ability of rural and small districts to grow and sustain CTE programming. Also, equity gaps exist that make expanding CTE offerings challenging for rural districts. These local level struggles are compounded by challenges with regional level institutions charged with supporting rural districts and their CTE offerings. In many cases, local and regional issues are ultimately predicated on state-level obstacles. All of these challenges are also rooted in a low understanding and adoption of the newer CTE structure and components. These barriers found at each level of the education system make it difficult for rural and small districts to sustain CTE programs, for students to access courses and find success after graduation, and for rural communities to realize the immense potential of these programs to catalyze their local social and economic landscape. 

With the first wave of research completed, we are eagerly looking forward to the new year to come. While we were able to answer some questions about rural CTE, we ultimately found more questions that needed to be pursued than definitive answers. More importantly, we’ve listened long and deeply to your stories and needs, and we are ready to begin offering a helping hand in the form of technical assistance tools, guides, maps, and resources for your CTE courses. Guiding the Rural IL CTE Project next year and beyond will be the four primary recommendations this first year has put forward to ISBE:

  1. Develop specific support mechanisms for rural and small schools
  2. Bolster support for regional CTE organizations
  3. Build stronger awareness and understanding of CTE
  4. Foster stronger coordination and collaboration among state agencies for CTE

Rural schools are the heart of their communities, and with CTE they are also the hands that produce local vitality as well. While some exemplary rural Illinois schools offer cutting-edge CTE efforts that bear witness to this potential, we are still a ways out from the vibrant rural landscape that I know we can cultivate. However, as we continue to work together to learn more, advocate more, and act more, we step closer to this goal. The first year of the Rural IL CTE Project may have come to a close, but we are striding forward into a second year of this work more energized than ever to keep hearing your experiences, to begin offering targeted support to grow and sustain your CTE programming, and to help you provide your students with opportunities to achieve personal and professional success.

Thank you to the many rural and small school districts and industry partners who have collaborated with us on the first year of this project. This work and research would have been entirely impossible without your partnership. Thank you as well to the Illinois State Board of Education and Marci Johnson ISBE Director for CTE for extending this opportunity to AIRSS. We greatly look forward to continuing this work with all of you!

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