“How many books were we required to read in high school where the main character stayed at home, never left, and that [choice] was a good thing?” Elizabeth Riley asked. “One, maybe?”
Although the 23-year-old left her rural Montana hometown of Broadus to study English and Spanish education at MSU, she hopes to return to eastern Montana after she graduates next month in hopes of strengthening small-town communities through educating their youth.
Growing up, Riley had planned to break the cycle of teaching careers that runs deep in her family — her mother, grandmother and great grandmother were all teachers at some point in their lives — but a love for children led her to Bozeman to study music education. After realizing she wanted to pursue a different passion, however, she changed her major to English literature.
The educator within her was reawakened when she received a summer internship in Billings as a leader and teacher with MSU’s Yellowstone County Extension Service. Riley, whose mother is an extension agent in Broadus, explained that extension offices provide every county in Montana with access to MSU agriculture research in areas like noxious weeds, beef production, 4-H and food safety.
When she returned to MSU the following fall, she chose to add the teaching option to her literature major.
“Once I decided to be a teacher, I knew there was nowhere else I wanted to teach than in a small town,” Riley said. “I believe these rural schools…deserve to have teachers who can relate to their backgrounds and who are willing to stay for more than a year.”
Riley, who recently completed her Spanish student-teaching curriculum in Rosebud, Mont., explained that new teachers without community ties often leave rural schools after teaching for short time periods, putting the schools and their students at a disadvantage and making it difficult to develop and sustain strong educational programs.
“We need to find a way to make [rural] communities and schools stronger,” she said, describing how in Montana there are more class C schools — schools with 100 or fewer students — than B, A and AA schools combined.
These small schools and communities are co-dependent, Riley said, adding that she believes Broadus would become a ghost town if the school closed. She cited after-school and extension programs as resources for nurturing the classroom-community relationship.
While she has several tangible ideas for strengthening rural education, Riley explained that some improvements are more difficult to achieve. Money for education comes from either state-distributed funds based on enrollment numbers or from the passage of mill levies, so rural schools often have difficulties receiving the money they need.
Riley also explained how small towns have a tendency to encourage their “star” students to attend college, while students with less positive educational experiences remain in the town. Years later, these alumni remain frustrated with the schools as their children are entering the system. While we do not need to “stop the ‘star’ from going away,” she said, educators need to “provide positive, encouraging connections for all students.”
Although she realizes the complexities and difficulties associated with rural education, Riley takes pride in the bonds and camaraderie within small towns. As an example, she described the community efforts last summer when a fire at Ash Creek cut off electricity to Broadus for over a week. Community members were in danger of losing their homes, and local volunteers worked through the night, surrounded by neighbors, fighting the blaze.
“These small towns show support every day,” Riley said. “I would like to find a way for [my students] to be proud of where they are from and to see that, if they want, they have the opportunity to make a profound difference in these towns.”