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It is a cool spring day in downtown Denver, Colorado, and it is the first day of the Spring REL Central Governing Board Meeting. Over 20 board members, comprised of education leaders from the seven REL Central states, are seated in a meeting room in a downtown hotel, discussing the recently released REL Central study, Understanding Rural Teacher Retention, Mobility, and Attrition in Four States, and how the findings might be used to inform educators and policymakers.

Over the course of the 2-day meeting, board members learned about new REL Central reports, infographics, and projects, and they heard from experts on the latest research on implementing trauma-sensitive practices in schools. However, most would agree that what they learn from collaborating with each other during the meeting is equally important.

The Governing Board convenes three times a year to provide input on REL Central’s projects and help to identify high-priority needs in the region. At the Governing Board meetings, members engage in cross-state and within-state discussions about education challenges, which are facilitated by REL Central staff. According to board members Wayne Stewart, superintendent of Glenwood R-8 School District in Missouri, and Laurie Matzke, assistant superintendent for student support and innovation at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (NDDPI), these discussions are particularly useful for learning how other members and states are using education research to address similar challenges.

“The number one thing that I find most helpful is collaboration with other states,” said Stewart.

Matzke agreed. “Here members get a chance to talk about education needs with others from states that share similarities with their own.”

Another valuable aspect of the meetings, members said, is the opportunity to ask REL Central researchers questions about different types of resources, tools, and studies related to their district or state needs. Board members are able to use information from discussions to inform local and state education leaders about education research on topics related to their state’s or district’s needs.

“We are able to get information when it is happening,” Stewart shared. “This information is useful for initiating important conversations with stakeholders.”

Matzke was exited to share how, in addition to the information gleaned at the meetings, support from REL Central has helped North Dakota build capacity to use evidence-based strategies to assess American Indian students’ needs and examine the Teacher Shortage Loan Forgiveness Program.

“With REL Central, we have capacity to do this work, and to get this work done,” declared Matzke.

That excitement was clear when Matzke and Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MO DESE), presented on state programs and their corresponding REL Central projects. Their presentations provided examples of work being done on issues corresponding to regional challenges.

Paul Katnik speaks to Governing Board members about the Missouri Leadership Development System
Paul Katnik speaks to Governing Board members about the Missouri Leadership Development System

Matzke discussed the North Dakota Teacher Education Loan Forgiveness Program and the REL Central project Implementation and Evaluation of the North Dakota Teacher Education Loan Forgiveness Project. The program looks to help fill specialized teaching positions with qualified candidates who are often hard to attract in rural areas–a near universal concern of Board members. In supporting NDDPI, REL Central partnered with them to assess the program’s effectiveness and implementation. During the presentation and discussion with Board members, Matzke answered numerous questions about effective loan reimbursement amounts, concerns about teacher morale, and reasons the program appears to be showing signs of success. Another Governing Board member in attendance, Andrew Jordan, district superintendent for Wilton Public Schools in North Dakota, shared Matzke’s enthusiasm for the program and answered questions from other members about the value of the program in helping staff key teaching positions in his district.

Likewise, Katnik presented on MO DESE’s Missouri Leadership Development System (MLDS) and their collaboration with REL Central on the project Missouri Leadership Development Research Support designed to assess the MLDS. Katnik described MO DESE’s belief that supporting school leadership in their schools will help to improve teacher and school quality and lead to improved equity for students and their outcomes. Members considered MLDS elements as potential solutions to teacher quality and equity in their own states, as well as a valuable support system for administrators that could be expanded to other positions.

As the Spring REL Central Governing Board Meeting wrapped up, Governing Board members left with a wide range of important information provided by REL Central staff. However, the opportunity to work with peers to better understand shared needs and goals, discuss strategies to surmount challenges, and conceive a shared vision to improve education for students and teachers was invaluable.

Learn more about the REL Central Governing Board members and their efforts to improve education in their states in the video Discover REL Central’s Governing Board.