Corrected: We misspelled the name and city of the national rural teacher of the year. Lois Eve Rodgers teaches in Patagonia, Ariz.
Rural Educators Await Choice Of New Leader
The face of rural education in America looked a lot like Joseph Newlin’s.
When the longtime director of the National Rural Education Association died in May, he left the organization to find new footing.
“He was one of those who had really worked hard behind the scenes and gave everybody else credit,” Al Eads Jr., the NREA’S interim director, said of Mr. Newlin.
Mr. Eads, the chairman of the group’s legislative committee and the head of the South Carolina Association of Rural Education, took over the interim post after Mr. Newlin’s sudden death from a heart attack.
The NREA’s annual conference, held here Oct. 24-28 in sun-soaked New Mexico, was just the chance for the 325 rural leaders here to discuss the group’s future.
Two weeks before Mr. Newlin’s death at the age of 70, he told the NREA board he intended to retire fully.
He had worked as the 1,400-member group’s part-time executive director for almost 20 years, many of those while teaching at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where the group was based.
“Basically, he worked full time for part-time pay,” said Mr. Eads, who lives in Summerville, S.C., and is the president-elect of the organization. The NREA board hopes to select and announce its new executive director soon, as well as another university to call home. It also wants to elevate the position to full-time status within the next few years.
Mr. Eads said the group needs a full-time director to amplify the voices in rural education, and to lobby in Washington and state capitals for the financial help and recognition that rural schools need.
Rural schools face other challenges, no matter the place or circumstance: Native Alaska, the Mississippi Delta, the Dakota plains, or the Navajo Nation.
While longtime struggles over funding and teacher shortages were addressed here, the group turned to a new problem.
Mr. Eads pointed to an alarming drop-off in research centers and studies that focus on rural schooling. Regional education laboratories run by the federal government have met that need for two decades, but legislation and other factors have cut into what was once a thriving research field.
The federal law that guides the work of the laboratories currently gives little direction for the labs to work on rural issues, and some retirements at universities over the years have left a hole in the field. Reversing that trend will be a goal of the group’s new leader, he said.
Local leadership was another major topic. Nick Pace, a former high school principal who now runs the student-teacher program at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, talked of leadership during a sensitive experience of his own.
He told an attentive audience how, while he was still a principal in Traer, Iowa—population 1,500—a young man had “come out” at school, and how the small, conservative community reacted to the student’s refusal to hide that he is gay. He even brought his boyfriend to the prom.
The advice from Mr. Pace: Treat everyone with respect, listen to all sides, don’t allow heated talks in a large forum, and keep in contact with students who might incite violence or threats.
It worked in his school. “I wouldn’t sell any of this as the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s simply what happened in our case, and it’s what we thought about.” The rural educators seemed to treasure the camaraderie of the conference, which came six weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
Lois Rogers, who was named this year’s “Rural Teacher of the Year” during the conference, captured the event’s spirit in a patriotic speech she gave at a banquet where she was honored.
“I’m never giving up on public education,” said Ms. Rogers, a high school English teacher in Padagonia, Ariz. “It is democracy—American democracy at work.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook