Catalyzing rural education—and communities

Headquartered right here in Galesburg, the Rural Schools Collaborative has grown over just a few short years into an influential national nonprofit.

For a family to make a home in a new community, at least two pieces need to be in place: job opportunities and access to high-quality education. Understand the power of those two things and you begin to understand the power of the Rural Schools Collaborative (RSC), a nonprofit focused on recruiting and developing teacher-leaders, advancing place-based education, and harnessing philanthropy to foster communities where educators, students, and other residents have what they need to build sustainable futures together.

With teacher shortages plaguing rural areas across the nation and rural schools often underfunded, RSC’s multifaceted strategy has gained traction in the seven short years since it was established.

“The focus has remained the same—what has changed is the scale and the scope,” said Joshua Gibb, president and CEO of Galesburg Community Foundation and a founding board member of RSC. “When we started in 2015, we were a group of like-minded volunteers from Illinois and Missouri who believed education was critically important to the vitality of rural communities. Now the Collaborative has expanded into a national organization, and we’re seeing this work have a real impact on rebuilding communities.”

RSC’s footprint may reach from coast to coast, but it stands rooted right here in Knox and Warren Counties. In fact, the organization recently moved its headquarters from Monmouth to a bigger space in Galesburg. “In partnership with Monmouth College, Galesburg Community Foundation is a key reason why we have planted our roots here in Illinois and continue to deepen our commitment to our local region,” said Taylor McCabe-Juhnke, RSC’s executive director, who herself relocated to Galesburg from Seattle to take the role in July 2021.

One key to RSC’s growth is the way it has elevated stories of rural communities across the country that are seeing success. That includes the I Am a Rural Teacher national advocacy campaign, a collaboration between RSC and the National Rural Education Association. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, I Am a Rural Teacher not only gives educators a voice but also connects them—to each other, to empowering resources, and to job openings.

For the Community Foundation and its mission of building strong and healthy communities, supporting the work of bringing talented teachers to rural areas and setting them up to succeed couldn’t be a better fit. “We want the best and brightest teaching our children, and we want our teachers to partner with our families and communities,” said Gibb. “Public education is the place that almost everyone in the community has an interface.”

The Community Foundation has supported RSC’s philanthropic initiatives from the beginning, with more recent grants going to rural teacher cultivation programs at Western Illinois University and Monmouth College. Echoing RSC’s Celia B. Godsil Grants in Place program, the Knoxville Community Fund, a fund of Galesburg Community Foundation, created its own Teacher Mini-grant Program. The grants funded STEM programming for junior high students, new calculators for AP calculus, and a bullying remediation initiative. The Alexis Community Fund recently awarded three mini-grants to support science education, purchase music instruments, and provide special education supplies.

“Philanthropy is part of what allows individuals, businesses and organizations, and governments to rethink their approaches to the way rural communities work,” said Gibb. “It’s a catalyst for change—a space in which you can think differently and consider change.”

“From supporting local students and teachers to creating new education pathways, Galesburg Community Foundation truly understands the importance of education as the backbone of small communities,” said McCabe-Juhnke. “It is not an exaggeration to say that Rural Schools Collaborative would not be here without the Community Foundation’s vision and support. We now serve more than 13 Regional Hubs across the United States, but our Illinois hub continues to be an exemplar of collaboration between local philanthropy, higher ed, and K-12 working together to strengthen their communities.”

For his own part, Gibb is about to conclude his service on the RSC board and a year as board chair. “It’s been a pleasure and an honor to do this work with great people across the country,” he reflected. “Taylor and her team have taken the Collaborative to places I could not have fathomed in 2015. Galesburg Community Foundation is honored to have played a small part in their continuing story, and I will continue to be an advocate for its work, locally and throughout its network.”

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