Reporting on Rural Schools: Another Country?
The Rural School and Community Trust, a national nonprofit that focuses on rural education issues, recently released its biennial report, ranking states like Mississippi, Alabama and the Carolinas as the most in need of school reform.
The report analyzes states based on five factors that impact and often challenge the condition of rural schools: the importance of rural education, the diversity of rural students and families, socioeconomic challenges, policies and educational outcomes of students.
The report’s unusual ranking system – which labels the state that needs the most help as number one and those that are succeeding near the bottom – was no accident, said Daniel Showalter, a visiting assistant professor at Ohio University who helped conduct research for the report.
“The way we rank states first place is not a desirable thing necessarily. It means we need flashing red lights – attention needs to be paid to this state and where there are high needs,” Showalter said at EWA’s 67th National Seminar, held in May at Vanderbilt University.
Showalter and others were a part of a session focused on the unique challenges rural school districts are faced with that urban and suburban schools typically don’t have to worry about – like outrageous transportation costs, forced consolidations and high turnover and poverty rates.
Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, managing editor of Education Week, said rural school districts’ issues are still overlooked today when talking about education reform.
“If you pick up most newspapers to read about education, you’ll find a lot about districts with a lot of students or a medium amount of students,” Manzo said.
High-profile cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Boston get a lot of attention but “it might surprise you to know most [school districts] are rural, and the number of rural school districts outnumber the urban combined,” Manzo said.
Some rural districts face obstacles that could have major effects down the road – like access to technology and infrastructure, said Alan Richard, the education director for the Denver-based Communications Strategy Group, and formerly a national reporter for Education Week.
“In most states, the Common Core-aligned exams that students are going to have to take are all online. They require a lot of bandwidth, and a lot of rural schools don’t have it,” Richard said.
Richard spoke to reporters at the EWA seminar about “the issues you’re not covering” when it comes to rural education: school finance systems in small-town districts, school mergers, early education access and racial segregation in rural areas and problems with Title I funding regulations for less-populated districts.
Samantha Hernandez, an education reporter for the Door County Advocate in Wisconsin, knows a little about rural school systems herself. One of the school districts she covers is located on Washington Island (it takes Hernandez a 45-minute drive and a half-hour ferry ride to get there) and had a whopping graduating class of five students this year. The entire district comprising of less than 60 students.
Hernandez’ advice for education reporters trying to gain access to rural, sometimes isolated, districts was pretty simple: get to know sources, and “be nice to secretaries.”
“I’ve had access issues, but things are a lot better now,” Hernandez said. “For further out school districts, take the time to cultivate relationships. When you go up there for a story, take a few minutes to sit and talk with them. You may just want to get in and get out, but try to find out the little things – what makes them tick. It takes a little more effort but they’re going to want to reach out to you when there’s a story.”