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Rural Schools Partnership Exceeds Officials' Expectations

Because the new Center for Midwestern Initiatives that I wrote about yesterday is based on the Rural Schools Partnership, I thought it would be good to take a closer look at what the partnership has accomplished since its launch in August 2009.

The Rural Schools Partnership is a project of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, and it's focus is tri-fold: develop school-centered philanthropic assets, encourage place-based education, and promote thoughtful school and community partnerships in the Missouri Ozarks.

Gary Funk, former president and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks and now head of the new Center for Midwestern Initiatives, said the Rural Schools Partnership exceeded all of its asset development expectations. It helped establish 180 new funds worth more than $4.6 million for rural schools and students, and it helped create 24 new school foundations or partnerships.

Some of you may be wondering about the money involved in this kind of effort. The partnership has not received any federal funds, nor has it sought grant support. It primarily has been paid for through the Community Foundation of the Ozarks and its donors. The Rural School and Community Trust also has been a key partner, and Funk said the Rural Schools Partnership would not be where it is today without the trust's support and expertise.

The partnership's funding has included:

• An estate gift in the form of a nearly $4 million endowment to supports its nationally recognized Ozarks Teacher Corps program, which gives future rural teachers scholarships and training in place-based education in exchange for a commitment to become a rural teacher.
• A private foundation committed $300,000 to make grants supporting place-based education, and schools that are members of the partnership can apply for these grants.
• Donor advisors and the Community Foundation of the Ozarks provided nearly $60,000 for smaller, student-driven community engagement projects, and schools that are members of the partnership can apply for those funds.
• A donor advisor provided $250,000 in challenge grants to build new school endowment funds or support existing school foundations. These challenge grants were issued in $10,000 increments and required a $20,000 match, and the 25 participants raised more than $900,000.
• The Community Foundation of the Ozarks committed nearly $30,000 for marketing, materials, meetings, etc.

Although no Community Foundation of the Ozarks staff member was dedicated to the Rural Schools Partnership, the time its staff contributed likely equaled that of one full-time employee, Funk said. He said it's worth noting the project came on the heels of a decade's worth of work by the Community Foundation of the Ozarks to build and develop rural philanthropic infrastructure.

The partnership's efforts, particularly the Ozarks Teacher Corps, are showing signs of initial success, but the goal is long-term change. The teacher corps has 31 students in its two-year program; 14 are juniors and 17 are seniors slated to graduate this December or next May. Its first six students graduated from the program this past May, and all were hired in their hometowns or other rural areas. One student has dropped out of the program, and the student repaid the partnership.

"Everyone wants quick results, and this is certainly the long view," Funk said. "It takes time, but if you don't start, it won't happen."

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