A rural school sends a quiet message to students and parents: Settle for less and don't expect too much. We need to demand more of our institutions – and ourselves.
I frequently say that Rural America has two key resources: our land and our young people. And for far too long, we have been living with and putting up with the consequences of outside super powers deciding the fate of both.
My son Atticus didn’t get a fourth grade education this year. In fact, the truth is that for three out of the five years that he has been enrolled in our public school, he has not received a quality education. His classroom instruction did not meet the state standards.
Despite spending about one hour every day focused on literacy, he along with his classmates read one book all year. One book. The title was Hatchet. It’s a fantastic story, ripe with the opportunity to engage students in experiential learning, build critical thinking and analysis, connect writing to resiliency. But his class did none of that.
Between October 1st and June 7th, they read 185 pages, methodically, each taking a paragraph and reading out loud. They got in trouble if they read ahead in an attempt to follow the plot. Often times, whole weeks would go by and they wouldn’t get to read at all.
A quick review of the writing standards reveals that he was only taught half of the writing content that he should have received. Ditto for science. Whole sections of his final report card are empty because his class never got to the content.
Our K-8 school houses 175 kids and sits on an ancient piece of farmland with woods and trails that flow down to the Browns River. An old farmhouse lies fallow across the road, with a quarter-mile of stone wall running alongside the dirt road, marking the way to the school, carrying stories that date to the town charter and life of the Abenaki people who lived there before the sheep. Wild turkeys, deer, fox, coyotes all romp through the fields following even more ancient paths.
But like the land, our school building and its inhabitants are poxed with signs of exhaustion. The rain pelted the roof as the school band gave its spring concert last month, coming all the way through and dripping into buckets that surrounded the clarinet and trumpet players. The drips keeping time like a metronome.
Yet, officially, we are not a low-performing school. Three years ago, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited our school on a listening tour. We were one of his rural highlights from that national tour. Our test scores tell us that we are performing above the national average and even above the state average.
Let me pause and insert that I grew up in a small rural town in Maine. And I come from a public school family. My father was both a teacher and a middle school principal for his entire career. I know well the long hours and dedication that teaching requires. And I am well aware of the thankless nature of the job. I still hear the raw eggs cracking against the side of the white vinyl siding of our house, as a student who didn’t like a decision that my father had made would decide to give us a drive-by lesson. Let me be clear that I am a passionate about public education.
And my elementary school, the G. Herbert Jewett School, was by any measure, a poor performing school, offering me a poor education. Nobody was coming to visit our school. My senior year of high school, on a rainy day with buckets spaced down the hallway, I overheard our guidance counselor quip with two other teachers that we had a higher percent of students who were pregnant than were going to college.
You see, in my town, there was a clear message that you best be willing to decide that life was good enough and not get better than your upbringing. Only a few can go to college, we were told, so best to plan on just getting a job.
When I was accepted with a scholarship to a small liberal arts college located a couple of hours away, I was repeatedly asked why I was leaving and what in the world was I really going to do with that? My mother, while deep inside fiercely proud of me in her own way, didn’t speak to me for three weeks after I was accepted because I was abandoning her.
Despite oodles of sweeping legislation, school standards, standardized testing, performance measures, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title 9, No Child Left Behind – and the list goes on –not much has changed in the last 30 years between my elementary education and Atticus’s except for the type of plastic bucket collecting the rain.
In his five years enrolled in our K-8 school, my son and his classmates haven’t once had attending college mentioned or encouraged as part of their future. Not once. When I asked a few of the staff a couple of years ago about their perspective on our kid’s future, they said, “Hmm, we don’t really focus on that. Oh, you know, they do different things to get by.” They didn’t see a role for themselves in creating college as part of these kids’ future. Nor did they see it as the school’s job to build a college-going culture.
The college completion rate for rural America is 15.4%-17% depending on whose data you are looking at – 15.4% for all rural residents regardless of income. Clearly, we are not unique in Westford, Vermont. Let’s face it, this is not just my story. Atticus’s educational experience is the experience of many of the children whose photos sit in your wallet and who are texting you throughout the day.
When I start to name this truth, folks want to placate me. “It will all work out,” they say. “He’ll be fine. He has good parents. Look at the opportunities that you give him, that’s what matters.”
I am not interested in being placated. And in fact, while I am simultaneously hopeful, anxious and ultimately furious each evening as I sort through his backpack for the crinkled papers that might reveal a window into his classroom day, I am outraged at the quality and substance of Atticus’s education, and I do worry.
I am angry that as my son sits in his plastic chair, against his wooden desk from 8:05 a.m. to 2:55 p.m. that he is learning the lessons of settling, of low expectations and of learning to squelch passion. And yes, I know that he will be fine. He has two parents who will do whatever it takes to make sure that he is not only college ready but has the 21st century skills that he will need to realize his hopes and dreams.
And to all those inside the education system and outside who seek to placate and quiet me, as if I am merely a parent with the “thwap, thwap” of a helicopter landing on the roof, let me be perfectly clear: What has me outraged is that 84.6% of rural residents don’t hold a college degree. The acid in my stomach burns with a fury of injustice that all of our children are being offered little to no expectations that they will attend college or even complete high school.
Secretary Duncan has called “education the civil rights issue of the day.” When 84.6% of a population doesn’t hold a college diploma, that is a civil rights issue. In fact, I believe it is considered an epidemic.
By day and often night, I work at YouthBuild USA. YouthBuild is a model for unemployed, out-of-school-youth to reclaim their lives and rebuild their communities. The model is based on our core belief that if given the chance, young people want meaningful work and to be leaders in their communities.
The need for meaning engagement, high educational expectations, and a chance to exercise leadership and be the driver of one’s learning is a universal need of our young people. But we are at an epidemic in rural America.
Nearly half of all 16-19 year old, disconnected teens in the United States reside in rural and mixed-rural counties.
The disconnected teen rate is between 8% to 37% higher in the most rural counties than in the country in general.
Being a parent with a child in a rural school has taught me just how easily and insidiously the dots between my work and my own life turn out to be connected.
I now understand how consistently we do not convey a message of opportunity and expectation in our schools and in our communities. Education and opportunity are inextricably linked.
Today, I invite you to bring your own story, of your community and the young people that live there and add it to our collective story. Together we are here to tell a different story.
Join us today in creating a story where we are unrelenting; where instead of watching a youth exodus, we create opportunity for our young people; where instead of committing to a resignation of resource extractions, we demand that the relevancy of our young people to the vibrancy of our communities and the strength of our country be recognized; where we demand investment and care of our most valuable resources.
Ask yourselves, how do my school and my community create college expectations? Do I know the percent of young people in my community that are completing college? Do I know the percent that are dropping out of high school? How can I create meaningful opportunities for my young people? How can I instill a sense of pride in and care of our most valuable resources?
Kim Phinney lives in Vermont and is director of rural and tribal development for YouthBuild U.S.A. This article is adapted from a presentation Phinney gave to the National Rural Assembly in Bethesda, Marland, last month.