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Bridging the Rural and Front Range Gap

821,008 feet. That is the total elevation of the fifty-eight 14ers in Colorado. Those stunning mountains act as both a literal and figurative divide that splits our state into the front range and rural Colorado. Oftentimes, this very real (and very tall) barrier creates ideological differences, inequitable resource allocation, and a lack of opportunity that pose threats to rural communities.

The same divide also finds its way into public education. Here we see rural Colorado has a distinct disadvantage compared to its suburban and urban counterparts. Front range school districts are better funded, have more and newer resources, and give educators opportunities to engage in the most recent and relevant professional learning programs. Unfortunately, rural communities don’t enjoy many of those geographically-dependent advantages.

Luckily, there are groups working on behalf of rural Colorado communities to change the opportunities for educators who choose to live and work far from the I-25 corridor. In 2017, the Colorado Education Association (CEA) partnered with the University of Northern Colorado Center for Rural Education and the Colorado Department of Higher Education to offer the National Board Certified Teacher Stipend. National Board Certification is an opportunity to retain excellent in-service teachers by honoring the hard work that teachers do to become certified and act as leaders in their field. The Stipend program, according to the UNC Rural Education Center, provides “All NBCT stipend recipients [with] support and mentorship from NBCT facilitators in a Colorado Rural National Board cohort. The value of the stipend is $4,250.00.”

The NBCT rural cohorts are fully facilitated by Colorado Education Association members. Karl Ramsen, a cohort facilitator from the Lake County Education Association, says, “I have no desire to become an administrator, but at this point in my career I also want to have an impact beyond the classroom. Facilitating a cohort has allowed me to become a teacher-leader in my district by helping other teachers reflect on their practice and encouraging them to pursue continuous improvement.”

Each cohort has anywhere from 14 to 20 educators who teach in rural Colorado school districts. Each cohort lasts two years, and upon completion of the program, enrolled educators will have submitted materials for all four NBCT components, allowing them to earn the certification. Not only does the NBCT certification demonstrate an educator’s leadership and prowess as an expert teacher, but it also comes with a substantial pay increase in a majority of Colorado school districts.

These kinds of programs that directly benefit rural Colorado educators can often be the sole reason why folks continue to teach in rural schools versus moving to a larger district. Valerie Sherman, the UNC Rural Center Director, notes, “Between Fall 2017 and Summer 2018, before the Center partnered with CEA and developed the Rural National Board Cohort, we awarded a total of 14 NBCT stipends. After partnering with CEA, we have awarded 36 stipends.” While the number seems small, in rural school districts, keeping 36 educators employed means they don’t have to spend valuable dollars hiring new teachers. More importantly, students receive more continuity from expert teachers, resulting in better teaching and learning in nearly every district where NBCT candidates work. Kris Kaplinski, a cohort facilitator from the Aspen Education Association, explains, “The Rural National Board Cohort removes the isolation and replaces it with a support system and group of like-minded educators who are all experiencing the same thing at the same time.”

This type of collaborative, supported professional learning Kaplinski mentions is difficult to attain in rural Colorado as many communities are relatively isolated from one another. According to Rachel Graham, a recent National Board Certified Teacher and current rural cohort facilitator out of the Estes Park Education Association, “Teachers are able to connect with others across the state, support each other and have mentors to coach them through the rigorous process. Rural districts are often isolated from the best practices happening in classrooms and this program allows connection with others.” These types of communities are a key factor to ensure that candidates grow their teaching practices while also remaining in rural Colorado school districts.

Beyond providing measurable, objective professional growth as teachers, the NBCT Stipend program also allows CEA members to earn more money, which means they can continue living and working in rural communities. Ramsen, Graham, and Jeff White, a long time facilitator from the Aspen Education Association, all note the direct monetary benefit tied to National Board certification. In fact, Ramsen was the key advocate in helping push the district to provide a monetary incentive for NBCTs in Leadville. His leadership on that front is yet another example of how the NBCT Stipend program benefits the Union. Through the rural cohorts, CEA and local associations are growing new leaders who passionately care about rural Colorado.

Yes, Colorado is divided, but mountains that scrape the clear blue skies are not enough to prevent the CEA from working with other like-minded organizations to address the barriers that make it difficult for rural Colorado educators to find high quality professional learning opportunities. Jeff White from Aspen sums it up best: “National Board Certification is an opportunity to grow and self-reflect in a process created by teachers; it is not easy. I love to hike, ski, and reach new heights. Since I really have no interest in administration, National Board Certification was the mountain I wanted to climb professionally.” By climbing that mountain and helping others do the same, Jeff, along with other cohort facilitators, are helping union members who choose to live and work in rural communities make a difference for themselves, their students, and their communities.

Casey Kilpatrick is the Director of Learning Services at the Colorado Education Association and is a former high school English teacher.