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A rural education tradition continues at Montana Western

September 29, 2009

“He’s so cute they can’t take their eyes off him,” she says.

Down the hall, fourth through eighth graders transform the gray walls of their classroom into a forest while they learn about the journey of Lewis and Clark.

These students are participating in Montana Western’s Rural Fridays program, which brings students from rural schools to Montana Western and gives education students the opportunity to teach in a rural school setting.

Rural Fridays is a collaboration between the university and rural schools to help prepare elementary education majors for the possibility of teaching at a rural school. It also gives rural schools resources they wouldn’t normally have.

Montana Western education professor Delena Norris-Tull says, as a Rural Education Center, Montana Western takes special interest in the preparation of teachers for rural Montana schools.

“There are only a few Rural Education Centers in the nation, and we have that designation,” Norris-Tull says.

Rural Fridays is offered through Montana Western’s elementary methods course. Through the course, teaching candidates have an opportunity to develop lessons and teach under the observation of rural educators and Montana Western faculty.

“It’s a unique program,” says Norris-Tull. “When our teaching candidates visit area schools for observations they have the opportunity to teach lessons in the school, but they don’t always have time to implement extended lessons. With Rural Fridays, our university students have to decide what they want to do and plan lessons for several hours.

One of the biggest challenges rural educators face is that many rural schools in Montana have one or two instructors teaching combined classes. At Reichle, located in tiny Glen, Mont., there is one kindergarten-through-third-grade class taught by Becky Jensen and one fourth-through-eighth-grade class taught by Sue Webster. Norris-Tull says Rural Fridays gives teaching candidates at Montana Western an opportunity to work in a multiple-grade situation like Reichle’s.

“Rural Fridays helps teaching candidates to get hands-on experience where we work with multiple grades,” Montana Western teaching candidate Kyra Hagberg says. “When we go into a regular school rather than a one-room school, we work with just one grade, whereas in Rural Fridays we had pre-kindergarten through third grade all in one room.”

This unique opportunity is made possible because of Montana Western’s block scheduling, where students attend one three-hour class per day for eighteen days before moving on to the next class.

“Montana Western’s block scheduling model, Experience One, provides the time frame needed to engage our students in extensive field experiences within schools and on campus,” Norris-Tull explains. “For example, a teacher education candidate can spend four days in a school while taking an education methods class as part of their field experiences prior to student teaching without missing university coursework,”

Preparation for Rural Fridays is at an annual meeting each fall with the teachers and Montana Western education faculty. Teachers work with teaching candidates to ensure the subjects taught on Fridays correspond with what students are already learning in their classes. Reichle Elementary’s Becky Jensen says it gives her students the opportunity to study a theme and receive an in-depth study of that theme from other people.

“It’s making more connections, and that’s really important,” Jensen says.

The benefits of Rural Fridays are found not only by Montana Western teaching candidates but also by the students and teachers of the rural schools.

“It enhances the [elementary students’] social development because they get to work with other schools and get to know kids from other schools,” Jensen explains.

The program also offers resources for rural educators who normally would not be able to afford such costs. According to Norris-Tull, a wide variety of university faculty provide professional development for the teachers. Educators then use those resources in their own classrooms.

“I’ve used the Rural Friday curriculum as a supplement to what I am teaching,” Jensen says. “I’ve used professors as speakers at our school for different units.”

Twenty years ago, the assistance Montana Western [then Western Montana College] could offer Reichle Elementary played a vital role in starting the Rural Fridays program. When the Reichle school burned in November 1988, the university quickly responded to the emergency by offering Reichle the use of two classrooms in the basement of what is now the IT-Woods building.

According to an article in Western Spirit in 1989, “An emergency school board meeting was held and Glen Leavitt, WMC’s Fiscal Affairs Director, and other concerned college faculty and staff members offered the use of the college’s facilities to house the ‘schoolless’ Reichle children.”

With the elementary studetns on the WMC campus for a whole year, WMC faculty arranged a “lab class.” This lab class eventually evolved into the current Rural Fridays program. The Reichle Elementary building had its grand opening in January 1990, but students still returned to the Dillon campus for Rural Fridays. Other schools in the area also began to participate, including Alder, Grant, Jackson, Polaris, Wisdom as well as homeschool students.

Rural education is a strong tradition at Montana Western. After all, the university started out as Montana State Normal College, an institution dedicated to educating and training teachers.

In 1917, the Rural School Department was established and teaching candidates had the option of taking an extra year of classes specifically focused on rural education to prepare them for Montana’s rural schools. Though this program disappeared in the 1921-22 catalog, Montana State Normal College still offered a four-credit rural methods course.

The university revived a focus on rural education in 1930 when it began to offer courses in agriculture, rural education methods, school management and courses in addressing rural school challenges. By the 1941-42 school year, the focus died and the university only offered students a class in rural sociology. By the 1948-49 school year, rural education disappeared altogether.

It was in 1978 that rural education experienced a resurgence on the Dillon campus when President George Bandy assembled educators from rural areas such as Montana and Alaska with the intention of developing a teacher education program to prepare students to teach in rural schools. In 1980, Bandy helped Western to secure the Regent’s designation as a Rural Education Center.

For Montana, the issue of rural education is still a crucial one.

Montana has many small rural communities separated from each other by large distances and numerous mountain passes – passes that are often closed during winter snow storms. According to the Montana Office of Public Instruction, of Montana’s 830 public K-12 schools, 617 (74 percent) have fewer than 250 students and 327 schools (39 percent) have fewer than 50 students.

Rural Fridays continues the rural education tradition at Montana Western. As teaching candidates adapt their teaching skills for rural education with hands-on experience, the university provides important resources for rural educators and fun learning opportunities for elementary students.