What ails rural schools

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As first seen in EdWeek Teacher in a blog series hosted by Larry Ferlazzo . . .

Whether you subscribe to the ranking systems of schools put forth by outside entities or not, for the sake of this blog I encourage you to indulge me. Of the Top 60 schools in my state (Illinois) as ranked by US News and World Report, only one school could be considered rural, and it is certainly not poor and boasts a teacher: student ratio of 1:13. My steadfast belief is that students in rural areas are not inherently any less academically talented than their peers, so how could such discord between achievement levels of students in urban, suburban, and rural districts exist?

I think there is only one possible answer – inequity. I am not exactly sure why this major equity issue between schools is so often ignored. Students attending rural schools are not provided the same inherent opportunties as students in suburban schools nor are they provided the supplemental resources normally directed to students going to school in an urban environment.

Why this inequity exists, I cannot tell you. However, I can tell you that many rural districts and schools are still doing wonderful things for kids. Their formula for success is not dissimilar from any other successful school. Working in and around rural school districts for the better part of the last decade, I have found incredibly successful rural districts have the following characteristics:

  • Great People
  • The quality of a school system simply cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. This is true everywhere, but even more amplified in schools with fewer teachers and higher teacher to student ratios. Imagine a district where one teacher is responsible for teaching every student to read. While every teacher is important in every district, an organization with 20 First Grade classrooms responds differently to one struggling teacher than an organization with only one such classroom.
  • Great Environment for Adults
  • You keep great people by paying them well or treating them well. In the case of small, rural schools, option one is normally off the table. In order to keep great teachers, the environment and culture must be warm, welcoming, and have a family feel. This is not something that just occurs – culture is built intentionally and through hard work. Not only is this the job of leadership, but more so dependent upon those ‘in the trenches.’ Great schools work hard to ensure they great places to work as well as attend.
  • Solutions-Oriented
  • There are enough things to complain about when you are understaffed and underfunded to consume all usable energy. Successful schools do not waste their energy bemoaning what they cannot become. Instead, they spend their energy finding ways to provide what they believe is needed to best serve their students.
  • Understand, but not accepting of, Situational Limitations
  • Every school leader in America thinks about what a difference they could make with just a little more funding. Rural school leaders are no different; however, they understand that the fates are not simply going to change overnight. Moreover, they no their situation will not change simply as a result of ‘hoping’ change occurs. This understanding, however, does not preclude innovation, use of technology, or seeking new partnerships or opportunities to provide what might not be readily accessible for their kids.

You may have noticed that I did not highlight a singular program or initiative when discussing what makes a rural school or district great. That is because there is no singular cure for the issues facing our rural school. The reality is that as a result of inequitable funding structures and lack of awareness rural schools have a significant hill to climb. The only evident cure is within those working for and on behalf of children in rural communities – this is the only sustainable option for long-term school improvement that exists.

PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, author of two books (Teach Smart and Building a Culture of Support), and sought after speaker and consultant specializing in school culture, principal coaching, effective evaluation practices, and student-centered instruction. PJ currently serves as the Superintendent of Schools for Meridian CUSD 223 in Northwest Illinois and can be reached via twitter (@MCUSDSupe).

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