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Small Town Blues

Thorns for rural schools range from lack of cash to lack of students amid more federal mandates.

From Montana to West Virginia, just having enough students is a problem. In New Mexico, low test scores of Native American children are the thorn. And in rural Oklahoma and Pennsylvania schools, the problem can lie in having enough money to hire more teachers and aides, maintain school buildings, and buy updated science textbooks, technology, new buses and even playground equipment.

From eastern valleys to southwestern deserts to northwestern farms, where shopping malls, movie theaters, and recreation hubs are often up to an hour drive away and the school district is often the largest employer around, various factors make it a challenge to educate students.

"It's extremely difficult and almost always inappropriate to generalize about rural schools across the country because they are reflections of the communities," says Marty Strange, policy director of Rural School and Community Trust, an advocacy group for rural schools. Some towns are suffering severe population declines and some struggle with administrators and teachers who leave for better-paying jobs. Also, with the big push toward testing and standards, rural profiles can be adversely affected if one or two students score poorly on standardized tests because a few students carry a higher percentage of scores. Thus, No Child Left Behind only exacerbates some problems in rural districts.

While all districts nationwide still devise plans to meet federal mandates under the new law, rural schools face other roadblocks like attracting and retaining quality teachers. The average teacher salary in rural schools in 1993-94, the latest statistics available, was $6,124 less than the average teacher salary in other districts, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"Funding is grossly inadequate to meet the needs of rural education and the No Child Left Behind Act adds new federal mandates that increase the unfunded mandates for rural schools," says Bob Mooneyham, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, an organization designed to enhance educational opportunities for rural schools. "We must be very careful as we look at school finance issues and education issues that we do not let rural students become the neglected few."

Under the new law, the Rural Education Achievement Program provides funds to small and low-income rural districts. Those are defined as districts with fewer than 600 students and a particular Locale Code based on population and proximity to metropolitan areas. The extra money is to help raise student achievement and enhance proficiency in reading and math education. Also known as the Rural Education Initiative, which came about after 1999, funds from the program can be used to hire new teachers or provide flexibility to use distance learning to increase participation in higher-level math and language arts programs.

Money Woes & Mandates

Steve Crawford, superintendent of Byng (Okla.) School District 16, and NREA legislative committee chairman, says it's hard to predict repercussions of the new law but funding is always a concern. Crawford, who leads 1,600 students in five buildings, says the state cut $248,000 from its funding last year, which meant furniture, playground equipment and buses were not replaced.

"But the No Child Left Behind's annual [school] progress report is an issue we're trying to come to grasp with now," says Crawford, adding that comparing test scores of different groups of students won't show yearly progress of individual students. "We're talking about human beings, and there are differences every year in our population of students."

Crawford says his other concern is staffing, although many teachers and assistants come from nearby East Central University, a teacher's college. Under NCLB, teacher assistants will need two years of college course work or comparable training by 2005-06. But he believes it will force him to cut his roughly 20 assistant staff in three years to raise salaries as they become more educated. "I'm not sure that's good for the kids," he says.

Other rural district leaders interviewed say they don't believe NCLB's mandates will be a great burden for them. However, Mary Conk, a legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators, says some district leaders don't yet realize the implications.

Under the new law, 4,000 rural districts applied for funds from the Rural Education Achievement Program, which means they could receive $20,000 to $60,000. But Conk says some sections of the law don't help rural districts, particularly requiring secondary teachers to have a bachelor's degree in their area of instruction by 2005-06. Rural schools would suffer because it's tougher to get teachers to rural districts period. Inner-city districts have complained about this part of the federal law because it's also hard for those districts to attract teachers.

"I'm not saying it's not something we should achieve, but the reality is that it will be very difficult, particularly for rural schools," Conk says.

Despite REAP, Deer Creek School District in Edmond, Okla., could be left in the cold. Superintendent of Schools Pam Twidwell says that based on the district's high academic performance combined with a high socioeconomic standing, her district might not benefit from REAP. Just last year, Deer Creek was the top district in the state, according to the Academic Performance Index, which is a statewide numeric score indicating school performance based on tests, graduation rates and attendance and dropout rates. "What scares us is that they might take existing money away," Twidwell says.

Funding has always been a problem for the district, Twidwell says, but it's even a bigger issue now due to student growth enrollment. Because more people are moving north from nearby Oklahoma City and they want their children in a successful district, the size of Deer Creek has jumped from about 500 to 1,740.

But parents are key in keeping money coming in. They pass bond issues every year that help renovate facilities, purchase instructional equipment and meet transportation needs, she says. "Our parents have placed education as the No. 1 priority for their children," Twidwell says.

Money is also a major issue for the two-school Fannett-Metal School District in Willow Hill, Pa. Farming and lumbering are the main sources of employment and 38 percent of the student population lives below the federal poverty level. "It's a catch-22," says Superintendent Dana Baker. "If you raise taxes, it's a tremendous burden on the property owners. Many are struggling to pay taxes. On the other hand, the state over the years has dropped its support for public education. It used to be 47 percent in the early '80s. In 2001-02 school year, it was 34 percent."

A class-action suit in the early 1990s pushed to change funding for rural education. The state legislature in Pennsylvania is reforming funding now so taxes are based more on people's affordability, Baker says. No Child Left Behind will provide an additional $60,000 to the district to hire more teachers and reduce class size from 26 fourth-grade students to 18, for example. But other areas "start to flounder," Baker says. "Some kids need extra help the whole way through," he says. "Especially in grades six and seven, when kids seem to struggle. ... There's no remedial help for the middle-level grades."

Strange says that when money dwindles, school "buildings get worse." "The way a lot of schools handle shortages in the budget is to defer maintenance," he says. Building upkeep "almost always depends on local taxpayers."

Fewer Jobs, Fewer Students

In Flaxville School District 3 in northeastern Montana, money is not the central issue. Parental involvement and one-on-one interaction between teachers and students keep test scores above average, according to Superintendent Jim Riedlinger. He just wishes there were more of them.

This year, Flaxville will have between 16 and 20 students in a K-12 building with five teachers. Two or more grades of students will share one class, such as K-3 in one classroom. Last spring, Flaxville voters shot down annexation with a nearby district, Scobey, which tends to lure Flaxville students due to bigger athletic, musical and social programs. In Montana, students can choose to attend other school districts, Riedlinger says.

"I think it's a serious problem," Riedlinger says. "When you have fewer and fewer students, more parents feel that they want their children ... to be part of a larger group."

Riedlinger adds that just the number of students has decreased steadily in the past five years in part due to a federal government program that pays farmers to put their land aside for 10 years, keeping more families away. Now the district is in jeopardy of shutting down, which would leave students having to attend Scobey.

Strange says dwindling enrollment is more common in towns across the Great Plains, western corn belt, and central Appalachia, including South and North Dakota, Nebraska and northern Vermont, or where the economy is rooted in natural resources, agriculture, forestry and mining. Farms are being consolidated and the natural resource economy is declining, meaning jobs are lost and families move, he says.

Taking the Long Way

In Gallina, N.M., they have enough students-360 of them. But test scores are so low in one school it could mean takeover by a private company. At Lybrook Elementary School in the Jemez Mountain School District, every student is Native American and bused in, sometimes for up to an hour, more than 40 miles one way, says former Superintendent Pancho Gardola.

Lybrook student test scores are so low that staff, administrators and community people are expected to create a school improvement plan to raise student achievement during a three-year period. If the school shows no progress after one year, the state can have a private company run the school, says Gardola, now superintendent at Espanola School District 55 in Espanola, N.M.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, of the students who graduated in 1992, the most recent statistics available, the dropout rate for Native Americans was 25 percent That was higher than any other ethnic group, including Hispanics, (18 percent) and blacks (15 percent).

"Our Native American community needs to make sure education is a priority for children," Gardola says. "We need to be tailored to be more culturally sensitive. We need to bring our parents into the equation ... so they feel invited and play a role in the education of their child."

Dulce (N.M.) Independent Schools Superintendent Levi Pesata, who is a member of the Jicarilla Apache tribe, says Native American students, at least in his tribe, may be at a disadvantage partly because they are more visual and hands-on learners. Native Americans also have different languages among tribes that makes learning in an English-speaking school tough. "There are variations of each language spoken ... and the learning process then takes you into different learning styles," Pesata says. "Teachers are not specifically trained to work with our particular tribal groups. They don't understand the learning process."

Pesata says if educators want to help these students, they must slow down. "There has to be more repetition, instruction needs to be slowed down so kids can master the content area," he says. "Our kids do learn more visually. They need more hands-on."

In the Jemez Mountain district, administrators are taking steps to avoid takeover. They are purchasing new curricula materials that will show cultural sensitivity, including pictures of teepees instead of skyscrapers, for example, and getting more parents involved, Gardola says.

And children will receive more hands-on lessons. The district is "bringing in artisans from the area to teach about weaving and oil paints," Gardola says. "Those types of relationships will hopefully help kids ... and get them excited about learning."

Taking the Bull by the Horns

Already, Jemez administrators know how to correct problems. Three years ago, two schools were on or near probation. Now, Coronado High School and Gallina Elementary School exceed state standards, Gardola says. Gardola helped achieve that after he "respectfully asked" the board to identify district goals and then allow administrators to implement programs.

Administrators also met monthly to review the Educational Plan of Student Success, a comprehensive plan with goals based on Terra Nova standardized test results, from grades three through nine.

Renaissance Learning's Accelerated Reader program was used to improve test scores, he says. It includes having students take a computerized program that pinpoints reading level achievement. It then shows which paperback books are appropriate for students and offers higher-level reading as students progress, he says.

Staff members also took part in intensive Spaulding Training that emphasizes phonics-a "critical key" to learning to read, Gardola says. "If kids learn the basic skills in the early grades, they will do much better as they progress."

"As administrators, we need to take the bull by the horns," Gardola says. "It's our children we're talking about. It's critical we address whatever the issues are. And parents play a big role, without a shadow of a doubt."

Education vs. Basic Needs

In neighboring district, Cuba (N.M.) Independent School District, the same issues lurk and students sometimes travel up to 58 miles to get to school.

Many students' homes have no electricity or running water, according to Tony Archuleta, assistant superintendent of Cuba schools. "Education is not a priority when dealing with basic needs," Archuleta says. "They don't see the world the way we do. When you worry about food, water and shelter, then education becomes secondary or tertiary."

Another issue is attracting teachers due to limited housing, shopping and recreation opportunities. Some teachers often stay two or three years as a "stepping stone" to bigger districts, he says.

But some change is in sight,. An Indian Education Committee, comprised of community-appointed leaders, will be a conduit between administrators and Navajo students on the nearby reservation, Archuleta says. "It will provide guidance and knowledge to the administration, so we could address issues of Navajo students in a more effective manner," he says.

Parents also need to be compensated for gasoline to get to school. And the district will try to provide transportation to families that don't have vehicles.

"You always need better facilities," he says. "You always need more technology. You always need to do a better job. More doesn't mean better, but more sometimes helps alleviate the problem."

Strange adds that even in rural districts that have dwindling enrollment, or in districts where teachers wear many hats, many students get more attention and do well on tests. "Kids [in rural towns often] have parents who value education," he says. "The community is so close to the school. The community expects the kids to do well. ...The lesson is that these are schools that ought to be valued and respected, like the communities they serve. They deserve a better fate than they are getting."

Angela Pascopella,, is features editor.