What's Haunting Rural High Schools?
A lot of people have occasional nightmares about bad school experiences. I’ve had my share.
Deep in the haze of restless sleep, I sense that the guidance counselor means well, greeting the soon-to-be-ninth-graders with kind words. But the real message? “We have low expectations here.” It throbs in my brain.
The shortest discussion? College prep. “But only a few of you can make it there. It’s hard.” A screaming Greek-style chorus: “We have low expectations here.”
The next discussion? Trades and agriculture, all well and good, but the sweet voice consoles the parents and their children: “Maybe these courses are too hard for you. They take a lot of time.” Terrifying. “We have low expectations here” is turning into a ghastly, off-key melody that hammers at my skull – from both sides.
The longest discussion? Basic requirements, just get that diploma. Am I witnessing a downward spiral to the darkest depths of a truly common denominator? The message echoes: “Now, those other courses are really difficult, so if you don’t want to work that hard, there’s an easier way. This is it.”
Alluring words, these. Somewhere beyond the edges of my dream state I hear some students screaming and burbling as the syrupy kindness trills and drowns their young spirits. The melody triggers an explosion of dank smoke as the refrain fades and rises again: “We have low expectations here.”
Could the nightmare get any worse? Oh yes: “Now, you have to get a high school diploma. If you get the basic one, then you can get a job at one of the two fast food restaurants in town. And if you do a good job, you can work your way up to manager.”
I struggle to awaken, but evil forces hold me down, chanting: “Low skills. Low wages. Ho-ho!”
Is this an American Dream descending? Drums from the school marching band telegraph a tattoo about the easy way out. But the rumbling cadence undermines the school’s foundations. The students are helpless. This noise is too loud even for them. Thoughts of opportunities congeal into smoldering little clouds as they emerge from the younsters’ heads. The school starts to smoke from around its foundations.
I roll over in the bed, but the voices of history ensnare me, whispering disrespectful things about schools, teachers, and children. Books are slamming. Don’t worry about reading, math, science, or anything else. Schools cost too much. Teachers earn too much. Education just isn’t practical enough. The kids are no good. Their parents don’t care anyhow. Even if the kids are good enough, where are the jobs? Not here, that’s for sure….
The school begins to sink from sight. A wave of greasy air from the fast food restaurants coats my nose and mouth. I am choking, falling, trying to scream.
In that moment before nightmarish despair and wakefulness, I think I hear Danté laughing. Trouble is, too many of the people I’m leaving behind in the unconscious don’t seem to get it. Most of the students and some of the teachers have quizzical looks on their faces. Do they even know who he is? Don’t they want to escape this hellish place that is sinking into the ground? Can they escape?
I am awake. Sweating profusely. Still confused. This is too real, but I am beginning to sort it out as the eastern sky lightens. I have questions, plenty of them, if I can only get past the terror. My mind is clearing. But the vision of the school sinking lingers even as the questions form:
How can small rural high schools foster high academic quality that will serve students and the community well in an unstable global economy, whether or not students are college bound? For a moment, whispers emerge from the dream within my receding dream: “It’s never been easy. Nothing important ever is.”
Low regard for education is an unfortunate part of local history for many rural communities across the U.S. It seems we have all too often taken a minimalist and pragmatic approach to rural public schools. Vestiges of a deep disrespect for too much “book learning” and anything that smacks of intellectualism are all too common. Many rural schools operate with minimal resources. Local property tax funding mechanisms are disastrous. State funding mechanisms are often inequitable. Some communities can’t – or won’t – tax themselves for better schools.
By the growing light of day, I see things in a new way. For generations, rural schools – whatever their limitations – educated teachers, nurses, lawyers, physicians, and other professionals and skilled workers who helped provide community leadership. Others left and did well elsewhere. Those who decided to stay tried to do their best. Maybe they made some well-meaning decisions that turned out to be bad. Ever so slowly, their decisions – well-meaning or not – ran up against the political, economic, and cultural forces of a nation and a world that rendered their community and school into the stuff of my nightmare.
The worst interpretation of these dreams? Low expectations suggest that rural communities don’t value their children or have lost sight of the future. Even if unintentional, low expectations are insidious and corrosive. They do not encourage children of different abilities to do their best, no matter what. They limit opportunities for children to explore their world, to believe in the possibilities of education now and the doors it can open when they become adults.
Low expectations, seemingly benign or not, erode the community’s ability to adapt and sustain itself. Low expectations for children – along with low school funding, poverty, and diminished expectations for the community itself – are nightmarish. Even if we can’t overcome the financial obstacles for rural schools, we need to encourage children to do their best with high expectations that are tailored to their needs, potentials, and desires to show what they can do for themselves and their communities.
Here’s my dream: We need to appeal to what’s best in children and the communities that are responsible for their future. With positive support, they can, and will, meet the challenges of high expectations. The alternative is nightmarish.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.