Rural Schools Draw Support from Their Communities

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Outside the small town of Mediapolis, Iowa, the elementary, middle and high school buildings sit together in one complex, surrounded by acres and acres of corn fields.

It's the kind of place where "everybody knows everybody," Mediapolis School District Superintendent Greg Ray says of the 1,600-resident town.

And that sense of community translates to strong support for their students.

More than a third of the public schools in the United States are in rural communities, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and about a quarter of all U.S. students attend those schools.

Rural schools have come a long way since Laura Ingalls sat on a wooden bench in a one-room schoolhouse, reciting her times tables. Like their urban counterparts, students learn everything from computer technology to Mandarin Chinese. But it's a challenge to provide a variety of classes to a smaller number of students.

Ray administers more than 800 students from Mediapolis and the surrounding communities in classes running from pre-kindergarten through high school, with 60-70 students per grade.

When only a few students are interested in a particular topic, like learning Mandarin, it creates problems for Ray.

"I can't afford a teacher for two kids," he said. "In urban areas, where you have a lot more population, you can afford a teacher because you will have several kids taking that class."

For this school year, Ray has managed to snag a Chinese native that he will share via computer hook-up with other school districts in Iowa.

Attracting good teachers in general is a common problem among rural schools.

"It is harder, no question, to recruit and retain highly effective teachers and principals in rural communities," said Kris Amundson of Education Sector, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington that works to promote changes in education policy that benefit students.

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