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SDSU researchers working to fill in educational gaps for rural students

Careers in a Box
Letcher's and Ramsay-Seaner's life readiness programming includes Careers in a Box and LaunchSkills, both designed to help fill in the educational gaps for rural students.

In the United States, roughly one-sixth of all K-12 students attend rural school districts. These students face many challenges and are often hampered by both a lack of funding and resources. 

Two South Dakota State University researchers have begun working to help “fill in the gaps” that rural students might be missing in their education. The idea came from hearing conversations parents were having regarding their children’s education. 

“Parents will say, ‘Why aren’t you learning this in school? Why aren’t they teaching this in school?’” said Amber Letcher, an SDSU associate professor. “It stemmed from there.”

Letcher and Kristine Ramsay-Seaner, also an SDSU associate professor, determined many rural students weren’t learning financial literacy or holistic well-being because their teachers often did not have access to the proper materials. They started a project that would provide teachers and other youth service providers with an accessible resource needed to teach those important life readiness skills.

“We knew our schools were being asked to teach things they weren’t necessarily being given materials to teach,” Ramsay-Seaner said. “There are math textbooks and there are English textbooks but there’s not necessarily a life readiness textbook.” 

“Around here, the resources are so limited in the schools, and they have a lot of standards to meet—they don’t necessarily have access to all of the materials,” Letcher said.

Amber Letcher
Amber Letcher, an associate professor in the School of Education, Counseling and Human Development

Further, many rural South Dakota youth are considered to be at-risk due to mental health professional shortages.

“All of the counties we serve are mental health shortage areas,” Ramsay-Seaner said. “The vast majority of South Dakota is considered to be a mental health shortage area, which means there are not enough providers for the level of need.”

Since 2006, Letcher has worked with at-risk youth populations, including substance-abusing youth and runaway and homeless youth. Letcher’s research work has also focused on youth development and wellness in the context of rural communities. 

Ramsay-Seaner’s research has focused on diversity, inclusivity and empathy development to support the mental health needs of underserved populations. She has also provided counseling services to individuals with mental health needs. 

Life Readiness Programming
In 2019, Letcher and Ramsay-Seaner were awarded a five-year, $1.2 million grant from the Children, Youth and Families at Risk program through the U. S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture. They developed a project to address the needs of both rural youth and front-line professionals who work with youth. Their overarching project, titled “Strengthening the Heartland: Promoting life readiness in rural youth,” is approaching its fourth year. 

“The program is really aimed at getting resources to communities that are underserved, under-resourced in our part of the country,” Letcher said. “It's really about rural youth and so all of our programming really focuses on rural communities, families and even professionals.”

The overarching youth life readiness programming has spawned multiple projects including  Careers in a Box and LaunchSkills—both aimed at providing rural youth the resources they need as well as providing youth service professionals with resources to support the learning environment. 

“I think the unique thing about this project is that it's really multitiered,” Letcher said. “It’s not just the kids, but also those who are serving the kids get some assistance.”

The first step in their project begins at the middle school level with a social and emotional evidence-based curriculum titled Second Step.

“The goal is to teach, for example, boundary setting, how to have a conversation, how to send an email and how to deal with conflict,” Ramsay-Seaner explained. 

After learning the social and emotional skills through Second Step, Ramsay-Seaner and Letcher designed the program so students gradually move into career exploration. As students move into high school, the programming has them move to an activity titled Careers in a Box.

“The focus is making them aware of jobs they don’t have an idea about,” Letcher said. “Because it’s USDA funded, we focus on food, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences careers.”

Teachers and other professionals are provided an actual box filled with information and activities on five careers. The careers provided are unique to the students and are often centered around the agriculture industry. For example, two careers previously provided are livestock marketing and ag broadcasting.

“These are jobs in your own backyard—you don’t have to necessarily go far away to a population center in order to find a stable, good-paying job,” Letcher said. “It’s right there for you, if you just knew what it was.”

“All of (the jobs we provide in Careers in a Box) are also jobs with growth potential,” Ramsay-Seaner said. “There’s a need for them. There’s a market for them.”

Kristine Ramsay-Seaner
Kristine Ramsay-Seaner, an assistant professor in the School of Education, Counseling and Human Development

Undergraduate students in AGED 431: Work Based Learning, have also helped with the Careers in a Box activities, Letcher said. The students are ag education and family and consumer sciences education majors.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for our undergraduate students to create a lesson that’s actually going to be used somewhere,” Letcher said. “They get credit, their names are on it and it gets sent to these schools.”

A large focus of their work has been  developing an all-encompassing curriculum, titled LaunchSkills. The curriculum has lessons and activities to assist professionals support developing life readiness skills in youth as they make the transition from high school to either college or the workforce.

“LaunchSkills is a curriculum we've been working on for a couple of years. The goal is to talk about all-encompassing life readiness skills in one book,” Ramsay-Seaner said. “What often happens is you have 10 curriculums and it's really expensive, particularly for our rural schools. At a lot of our rural schools, teachers and the school counselors are paying for their materials out of pocket.”

The LaunchSkills curriculum includes lessons, activities and discussion guides in four categories: academic success, holistic wellness, financial literacy and career exploration. For example, one of the sections in the book has activities and information on mindfulness. 

LaunchSkills was also designed to assist teachers, counselors, 4-H professionals—whoever wants to help youth—prepare for their adult life. The book was provided free to schools, 4-H programs and juvenile detention centers—among other places—in 20 states as part of their pilot evaluation. 

“We really want this to be useful in a lot of different places,” Letcher said. “Any service provider that works with youth can pull this out, because it really is skills for just being a successful human.”

Ramsay-Seaner says the free resource is a huge help for rural teachers in underfunded districts. 

“An affordable curriculum can sometimes be anywhere from $100 to $1,000,” Ramsay-Seaner said. “I think it's hard to explain how much pressure it takes off people by being able to provide these resources to them free of cost.”

Another important aspect to lessons in the LaunchSkills curriculum is that they are very “grab and go,” Letcher said. 

A sample lesson from LaunchSkills

“There are a ton of really good curriculums out there, but they can be 12 weeks long and really intensive,” Letcher said. “You don’t have to do a lot of prep (to use this book).” 

Future plans
LaunchSkills is currently in the pilot phase and not available to the public. Ramsay-Seaner and Letcher hope to start receiving more feedback on the curriculum from the schools and service providers who were involved in the pilot program. After getting feedback, a formal evaluation and review process will begin. 

So far, they have received only very positive feedback. 

The researchers have discussed digitalizing the LaunchSkills curriculum to make it more accessible. 

“We’ve been asked if there is a digital version,” Ramsay-Seaner said. “Not yet, but we do see a real benefit in doing that.”

The project is in collaboration with North Dakota State University Extension and recently, Ohio State University Extension began working with Letcher and Ramsay-Seaner.  

“We are looking for more potential partners and are open to collaboration,” Ramsay-Seaner said. 

For more information on the project, email Letcher or Ramsay-Seaner.