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A rural outreach

The Center for Promoting Research to Practice in the College of Education has announced a new partnership with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to study teacher professional development in the nation’s rural communities.

Edward Shapiro, the center’s director, says Lehigh will focus primarily on improving the knowledge base of rural teachers on Response to Intervention (RtI)—a much-lauded method of early intervention that seeks to identify problems with reading and math as early as kindergarten.

Shapiro, a national leader in RtI, is completing a large scale effort to implement RtI into several schools in Pennsylvania. Together with Nanette Fritschmann, assistant professor of special education, he is also establishing a national training program for school psychologists on how to implement RtI into elementary and secondary schools. Both efforts are funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

“So often, the challenges facing the nation’s most rural school districts are overshadowed by their urban counterparts. The issues may be different, but they are no less severe,” says Shapiro. “This effort is among the first to take a close look at infusing state-of-the art classroom strategies like RtI into some of America’s most sparsely populated areas.”

Kirra Guard agrees. A teaching assistant in Lehigh’s school psychology program, Guard is working with Shapiro on the University of Nebraska partnership.

“Because of the limitations placed on rural schools simply in terms of geography, RtI offers a practical tool bag of sorts that educators and administrators can draw upon in order to benefit their students,” Guard says. “The ability to effectively implement an empirically supported system for educating, monitoring, and intervening with students is infinitely useful to these individuals.”

State-of-the-art technology for classrooms

The research falls under the auspices of Nebraska’s new National Center for Research on Rural Education , the only one of its kind in the United States. This summer, the university won a five-year, $9.9-million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to launch the center, which will focus on infusing state-of-the-art instructional technologies and practices into the classroom.

Estimates show that, nationally, nearly 10 million children attend school in rural areas. Rural school districts face significantly less turnover than their urban counterparts. While this creates a stronger sense of cohesion in the school community, it also creates an environment that can be less accepting to change. This, coupled with geographic isolation, means that rural teachers rarely have the resources—to adopt new methods and instructional technologies designed to improve academic performance. Student performance suffers as a result, especially among youngsters with disabilities.

According to Sue Sheridan, the Willa Cather professor of educational psychology and director of The Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, teachers cite personal and professional isolation as the greatest disadvantage to working in rural schools.

"Rural teachers don't always have access to the most up-to-date, research-based programs and strategies that are available in cities with universities and research centers closely aligned to the schools where the research is taking place," she said in a press release. "We hope our research can fill that gap."

In the past two years, Lehigh’s Center for Developing Urban Educational Leaders has built a reputation as a leading research center for urban communities. Shapiro’s participation in the new rural research center gives Lehigh’s College of Education an opportunity to influence national policy affecting struggling school districts in each corner of the country.

“This new effort not only shows the reach of our research here at the College of Education, but it also complements the high-caliber work being done by Lehigh in urban settings,” says Shapiro. “We’ve really become a national leader not only in conducting quality research, but also in extending it successfully into all types of classrooms where it can have a real impact.

“Lehigh is changing the learning trajectory of students, regardless of whether they are in the streets of Philadelphia or the farmlands of middle America.”

Story by Tom Yencho

Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2009

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