Long bus rides. Teacher shortages. Poverty. Isolation and consolidation. Rural school districts in the most remote parts of the country all face similar troubles. But students in some rural states manage to do well, while in others, they struggle. Why?
Education advocates say successful rural school districts share certain traits: dedicated teachers, community support, and most importantly, state policies that address their needs.
There are about 9 million rural students in the nation, who comprise 19 percent of the total student population. In its latest report, Why Rural Matters, the Rural School and Community Trust found that students in rural states such as South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming are achieving despite strong challenges and high poverty levels.
Rural students in states with large urban districts, however, are not achieving at as high levels, although they face less of a challenge from poverty and receive more per-pupil spending. About 20 percent of all rural students attend schools in eight states not thought of as rural, such as New York, California, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
But states with urban populations often make policy decisions about education that address the issues faced by inner-city districts and ignore the unique issues facing rural communities.
Public policies in these states result in larger schools, larger districts, larger class sizes, and high transportation costs, causing the achievement gap, according to the Rural Schools report.
"Where rural schools get hurt is the one-size-fits-all policy decisions," says Mary Kusler, senior legislative specialist for the American Association of School Superintendents.
Rural students fare better in states that clearly recognize the obstacles rural districts face and which have policy initiatives that address them.
"Rural schools are one of our best success stories. They tend to be able to do more with less. Teachers tend to be closer to the child and have a greater sense of who the parents are. They are able to overcome barriers of geographic isolation to do some amazing things with their kids and their kids can succeed like anybody else," says Kusler.
Golden Egg States
Educators in rural states where students do well--which the Rural Schools report terms "Golden Egg States"--say there are a combination of factors along with state support that help students achieve.
"Golden Egg states have a history of high expectations and strong public support," says report author Marty Strange, policy director for the trust. "They are agricultural communities with strong work ethics second to none. They have small schools close to home. Children start in kindergarten and graduate in the same building."
Across the plains of Nebraska and the mountains of Montana, superintendents talk of the strong commitment of teachers, small class sizes, one-on-one attention, the sense of community, and the affection for the local school that often represents the heart and soul of the town.
"Teachers know the children very well. They know their parents, their grandparents, their brothers and sisters. Parents know the teachers and being able to communicate between school and home is a simple thing to do," says Linda McCulloch, superintendent of the Montana Office of Public Instruction.
Montana has 450 school districts, 50 of which have 10 students or less. The 147,000-square mile state has 146,552 students, or about one per square mile. "Our communities are extremely supportive of our schools. If there is a band concert on Thursday night the local grocery store will send out a notice to everyone," says McCulloch.
In South Dakota, which has 120,000 students in 168 districts, state Department of Education Secretary Rick Melmer says strong family ties help students succeed.
"I think the family unit is still the key to everything we do. That's how I think we are making it," says Melmer.
Centralized school government also helps, say educators.
"Local control is extremely important," says Jerry L. Sellentin, executive director of the Nebraska Council of School Administrators. "It helps teachers and administrators understand the curriculum and standards."
But there are challenges even in these Golden Egg states. These include population losses, consolidation pressure, transportation costs, competitive teacher salaries and increasing federal pressure to meet testing mandates, especially under No Child Left Behind. Funding issues are looming problems.
"In rural schools, enrollment becomes a big issue because the issue of consolidation is huge," says Strange. "The way the state funding treats smallness is another issue. Mostly states contribute money by per-pupil population, but rural schools, have certain costs fixed costs, like salaries. Small schools just don't get enough state aid to pay competitive salaries or to pay for complete faculty to provide a full curriculum."
Teachers in Montana are the 48th lowest paid in the country and 70 percent of students graduating with teaching degrees are leaving the state, says Linda McCulloch, Montana's superintendent of Public Instruction.
McCulloch's office has backed legislation that would allow teacher loans to be paid off if graduates remain in Montana. McCulloch also supported a bill that would increase teacher retirement benefits if they stayed an extra five years. Both bills failed to pass the state house.
Nebraska, which also has low teacher salaries, gives its instructors more authority over student assessments, making them feel more respected and valued, says Doug Christensen, commissioner of education. "We are trying to make being an educator in Nebraska a very professional experience," he says. "We treat teachers like professionals. We don't have state tests. We feel teachers should be doing their own assessments."
South Dakota teachers rank the lowest in the nation regarding salaries. But despite this, South Dakota and all other rural states, have to meet the highly qualified teacher regulations of No Child Left Behind.
Often rural schools can't offer the breadth of classes, such as AP classes or several foreign languages, as other districts can because they haven't attracted enough staff and under NCLB, teachers can't teach more than one subject area, such as both sixth-and seventh-grade math, unless they've been certified in both grade levels.
To get around this issue, many of the Golden Egg states are offering bonuses to teachers who will delay retirement. And they are using distance learning options.
One of the biggest pressures on rural schools is consolidation, as some areas lose population and financially strangled states are pushing to save money. But this creates a new set of problems that often hurt student achievement, rural educators says.
In remote areas of Nebraska, a state that has only 300,000 students, school districts are experiencing about a 35 percent loss of student population each year.
"We went from 1960 when the average family size was over five and now it's 2.7," says Christensen. "There are simply fewer kids and the economy starts to shrink, and then there are fewer jobs and so it becomes an endless cycle."
But when schools consolidate, students have to travel longer distances by bus, driving up transportation costs and tiring out children whose school day becomes exceedingly long, educators says.
"The long bus ride is a silent killer to academic achievement in rural America," says Strange. "We've got some kids in the U.S. who are on the bus longer than they are in the classrooms. It affects everything including their sleeping patterns and whether they can participate in extra curricular activities. They are even too tired to take the hard classes."
One state where this is a particular issue is West Virginia, which spends more than any other state in the nation on transportation. The state has mediocre graduation rates and among the lowest standardized test scores in the nation.
State policy makers should take into consideration the quality of education students receive in the remotest districts before pushing for consolidation, rural advocates says. "The rural policy challenge is to find ways to fabricate the advantages of larger scale schooling without losing the intimacy, accountability and engagement that are the blessing of smaller schools," suggest Johnson and Strange.
Montana has seen enrollments decline by about 1,500 each year, but Superintendent McCulloch says she is not in favor of more consolidation. "Anytime time there is a school closure, it tears apart the community," she says. "I'm not a fan of forced consolidation. Research shows it doesn't really save money."
Changing the Formula
School districts in Golden Egg states are working to change the state education funding formula to better reflect the needs of small, remote districts so they don't have to consolidate.
Formulas often are based on per-pupil ratios, but that doesn't take into the account the costs of paying for fixed costs such as superintendent salaries and building maintenance.
Nebraska has changed its formula so a school district doesn't lose money the very next year if its student population goes down. In Montana, advocates won a lawsuit against the state that will force it to take into account a school districts' budget needs, not just the size of its student population.
Wyoming uses a cost-based model for its funding after advocates won a lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995 challenging the formula. The formula has helped rural schools because it takes into account cost items for schools regardless of pupil size, says deputy superintendent Bohling.
If rural schools and state policy makers continue to focus on funding, staff challenges, transportation issues and the quality of curriculum, students in these isolated districts will be able to achieve at high levels, say educators.
"States that do have policy environments that do seem to be conducive to high quality environments," says Kusler, "must continue to fight tooth and nail to hold onto those things."