Rural schools need more federal attention

According to Gene Bottoms, senior vice president of High Schools That Work, an improvement initiative for high school leaders and teachers developed by the Southern Regional Education Board, some of the advantages rural schools have are thwarted by disadvantages.

Bottoms said that while teachers gravitate toward schools that have a sense of community and appreciate their teachers, pay is often low and causes teachers to seek a higher paying job in urban or suburban areas.

And though technology can provide many resources for geographically isolated regions, access to technology is “uneven in rural high schools and needs to change.”

“Many times the technology support and infrastructure needed to access these 21st-century resources is just not there,” he said.

Darling agrees with Bottoms, citing his district as an example of this problem.

“Though we send daily eMails to parents, communicate electronically with students, have a 2-to-1 [student-to-] computer ratio in our schools, and recognize the potential technology has to enrich our students’ education through virtual trips, teacher professional development, and data assessment, our bandwidth is limited and we can’t do all the great projects we want to,” he said.

“We have to take advantage of state technology funding for infrastructure, but funding is often hard to come by.”

Federal solutions

Inadequate funding is one of the most important issues that calls for a federal solution, says the report.

According to AEE, many smaller rural school districts are at a disadvantage when it comes to federal Title I funding—the largest federal funding source available to help local school districts expand opportunities for low-income students.

“Districts are only required to make Title I funding available to high schools with a student poverty rate of 75 percent or higher,” the report says. “This bars most rural high schools from ever receiving federal funding. The rural districts that do qualify for Title I funds generally receive less per-pupil funding than larger districts.”

The report also explains that current weighted formulas, which let districts choose either the number or the percentage of poor students to determine Title I allotment, favor large rural districts with a large number of poor students, and disadvantage smaller schools.

Federal solutions need to address these important issues, the report says, including:

• Providing high standards and demanding courses;
• Improving rural high school accountability;
• Expanding student supports and options;
• Recruiting and retaining highly effective teachers;
• Building strong models of community support; and
• Setting high expectations for college and career success.

“One of the reasons why our district is successful is because we offer rigorous courses,” said Darling. “We offer 30 college-level courses and a project engineering class. We also have a yearly curriculum recycling program. Seventy percent of our students go to post-secondary schools.”

“Having a pre-college curriculum is important,” Bottoms said. “Investment in college-ready and core academics curriculum leads to more college-goers and [fewer] dropouts.”

Rural schools must make sure they have a practical curriculum that is relevant for the 21st century, he said, adding that learning should be hands-on. Students need to see, for instance, how technology and 21st-century skills can be applied to agriculture and other curriculum areas.

Providing not just professional development, but also time for professional development, is critical, Darling said, just like in other schools.

“[Because] we all wear so many hats, sometimes finding extra time is hard. That’s why we have to make sure to provide our teachers with flexible options and more time,” he said.

Next steps

Although the report was meant to give lawmakers a better understanding of rural schools, AEE hopes to work with federal leaders and other national partners to craft policy solutions as well.

Meris Stansbury

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