National education policy should encourage rural schools to play to strengths like connection to place, strong community support and using nature as a classroom. A Pennsylvania middle school principal explains how rural settings are an advantage for his students.
I am the middle school principal in a rural school district in northwestern Pennsylvania. On the final day of school, you can drive through our parking lot and see an impressive array of John Deere, International Harvester and Caterpillar tractors lined up.
In what has become a rite of passage, graduating seniors make their final trip to school aboard the oversize-treaded family farm vehicle. This past year, one senior took things to the next level and rounded up a few classmates to join him on horseback for this last journey to school.
This parking-lot full of farm equipment points out something positive and unique about rural students. To help prepare our young people for happy, productive lives, education policy ought to focus on the other positive aspects of living and learning in a small town or rural setting.
For starters, it’s time to demand equity with education dollars for the 10 million students (one out of every five) in our country who attend rural schools. About one-half (49.9%) of all public school districts in the United States are located in rural areas.
My rural school district has found the ways and means to leverage the unique aspects of our rural context, but I’m not at all certain this is sustainable and it is certainly not the norm. We are not immune from the most significant challenges facing rural schools, and yet we recognize the need to present an education program that meets the requirements of state law and puts our students in the best position possible to compete in the global marketplace.
Across the country, 23 percent of rural students don’t even finish high school. The college enrollment rate for young adults in rural areas is only 27 percent. This is lower than the rate in cities (37 percent), suburban areas (31 percent), or towns (32 percent).
Many rural schools deal with high levels of poverty, low property values and low personal income. Additionally, these rural schools face declining enrollments, difficulty competing with other districts for the best teachers, and lengthy bus rides. Not surprisingly, the rural, small and poor schools have greater problems in obtaining and using state-of-the-art technology.
I’m sad to say there does not appear to be a political solution around the corner. Equitable school funding deserves national, state and local attention, and we should not give up on putting our rural education needs front and center with our government leaders. A prime example of the lack of attention to rural education in Washington, D.C., is captured by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2013 remarks at the Rural Education National Forum. Duncan told attendees: “Inside the Beltway Bubble, rural education is still often treated as the poor second cousin of education reform.” It seems our rural settings are an afterthought to politicians at the highest level. The low socioeconomic status of rural students and their dispersion across the country places them well out of the mainstream of discussion.
With the knowledge that our children are the future, can our country afford to write off one out of every five students because they come from a rural hometown?
Or can we turn geography to our advantage?
I suggest we play our strengths and push hard on every rural advantage we can identify.
One rural school advantage is small size that leads to personal care and concern with more individualized instruction. Another rural advantage is that our schools serve as community centers and the hub of positive co-curricular involvement and activity for most everyone. Finally, it’s worth noting the unique partnership possibilities that exist in our rural setting. We can take advantage of engaging school-community sponsored environmental stewardship, land parcel adoption, habitat enhancement, garden science and many other initiatives involving nature.
The strength of rural communities has always been their willingness to “make do” and to nurture kids in a way that is unique to small towns. In the present, “make do” has to “make way” to producing graduates that can play a role of their choice in our global society.
The rural students in my districts have found a unique way to express both their individuality and their sense of community. Education policy should help these students find their strengths every day of the year.
Jim Wortman is a Middle School Principal in St. Marys Area School District in rural northwestern Pennsylvania. He is a doctoral candidate in the professional doctorate in educational leadership program at Duquesne University. You may email him at [email protected]