Can Fresh Attention to Rural Schools Fix Old Problems?
Telling the stories of the nation’s rural schools means better understanding what they offer the roughly 8.9 million students enrolled.
It also involves understanding the communities around those schools, the students attending them, and the challenges they face, a panel of educators and journalists explained recently during EWA’s National Seminar in Washington, D.C.
And one of the most important stories to tell about rural education involves inequality, said Alan Richard, a longtime education writer and editor.
“All you have to do is spend an hour in a school or talk to a family and it hits you in the face,” he said. “It’s completely apparent.”
Two years ago, Richard said, he visited a countywide school system in Mississippi that was so broke, the superintendent dramatically reduced his salary to the lowest amount he could receive to still receive benefits.
“They’ve never even thought about (Advanced Placement) courses,” he said.
That reality smacks of the type of inequality, the lack of opportunities available to students, seen when comparing rural schools to suburban ones, Richard said later.
Inequality also ties back to how many rural schools are funded.
“A lot of folks don’t understand rural communities do not have a tax base, which most school funding formulas rely heavily on,” said Tim Bobrowski, the superintendent of Owsley County Public Schools in Kentucky.
“Property taxes are a terrible way to fund rural schools,” Richard said. That approach produces inherent inequity, he said, because the communities lack a strong tax base and that is not likely to change in the near future. Leaders of many rural districts have responded by suing states for a greater share of resources, he said.
It is also important for reporters to know the communities of the rural schools they cover.
“You can’t talk about … how rural schools are doing without talking about how rural communities are doing overall,” said Catharine Biddle, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Maine.
Parsing School Communities
In rural areas, she said, schools often are the only social institution. Rural schools “reflect very much what’s happening in the community,” Biddle said.
Understanding those communities involves dispelling myths about who attends rural schools and even where the schools are located, the panelists said.
More than one in four schools in America are rural, enrolling about 8.9 million students, Richard said, citing a recently released report from the Rural School and Community Trust, an organization for which he serves as the chairman of the board of directors. Half of the rural school systems in 23 states enroll fewer than 485 students, Richard said.
For most people “the reason they don’t get rural issues is because they don’t get to rural America,” he said. “Most people in Mississippi haven’t been to the Mississippi Delta. Most people living in Alaska haven’t been to the bush.”
Many rural students come from white, working-class families, but many also represent racial or ethnic minority groups, are children of immigrants, or come from low-income families.
It’s important to talk to the students to get those stories, the panelists said.
Don’t just talk to teachers, administrators, or the students those adults push into the spotlight, advised Sahar Mommadzadeh, a rising high school senior in Kentucky who was on the panel.
“The students that have the least to say within the classroom have the most moving and telling stories,” she said. “So, dig deep, because they are there.”
Academics aren’t students’ only worries. Many also juggle significant challenges in their lives outside of school, Mommadzadeh said.
“We have students going home and working, taking care of younger siblings when their parents are absent,” she said. Mommadzadeh, who advocates for fellow Kentucky youth as a member of the Student Voice Team for the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, has talked to students caring for siblings and working full-time night shifts before going to school.
At school, those students may fail to meet accountability standards, but “they have the grit,” Mommadzadeh said. “It’s just not matching up.”
Will Trump Give New Focus to Rural Ed?
Much of the spectrum of rural education issues raised during the discussion – from facility maintenance woes to troubles recruiting teachers – aren’t new.
It’s a point Biddle of the University of Maine underscored by quoting Henry Dewey, an early 20th century superintendent. His list of challenges rural schools face included “a lack of carefully trained teachers, poorly constructed schoolhouses, insufficient equipment” and teacher turnover – issues that remain a struggle for many rural schools.
The question remains of whether those issues have been addressed, said Biddle, who has studied 100 years of rural education research. If not, she said, “are we thinking about rural education reform in the way that we need to be? Is the discourse of education reform in this country doing rural schools a disservice by not thinking about their unique needs?”
Another question is how the nation’s rural schools will fare in the Trump era.
Richard attended the confirmation hearing of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos earlier this year and observed senators, including those from Maine and Alaska, push her on rural issues. The senators were saying, essentially, “‘Hey, rural America helped elect this president. What are your plans?’”
“She had absolutely no answers,” Richard said. “And so that’s very concerning that the federal government just seems to be not responding on rural education.”