America's neediest schools languish far from inner city

Rural school districts offer the lowest teacher salaries, and their students are among the poorest in the nation.

When Scotty Holderfield walks around Rison High School, he sees a brick shell of his alma mater.

These days, the school's air conditioner doesn't always work, and the ceiling tiles leak. Certainly, most students don't have Internet access, a staple in today's education arena. Teachers' paychecks feature some of the lowest salaries in the country.

"We are not alone in this situation," says Mr. Holderfield, the school district's superintendent. "We are just one school in thousands that are rural with a list of needs as long as the Mississippi River."

Rison typifies how rural public school districts have become lost in the political shuffle of state politics and an education system that has examined urban education plights in recent years rather than looking down the backroads at America's other schools.

From the Arkansas Delta to the mountain schoolhouses of Appalachia, many rural schools are struggling to provide adequate education to the 25 percent of America's students who attend them.

"Rural communities are very needy places," says Rachel Tompkins, president of the Rural School and Community Trust (RSCT), a nonprofit educational organization in Washington. "If you look at poverty stats, your chances of being African-American or Hispanic and poor are greater if you live in rural areas than in the city."

Perhaps nowhere is this educational strain more evident than in Arkansas, which leads the nation in the percentage of students who attend rural schools. Arkansas's rural teacher salaries are among the lowest in the nation, and are significantly lower than those of nonrural teachers in the state.

The state also has a high percentage of rural children who live in poverty, according to a study by the RSCT. One indicator is the high number of students who receive free lunches.

Certainly, Arkansas isn't alone. Nearly 60 percent of the nation's school districts are rural, according to the US Department of Education.

But rural education in seven states in the South, Appalachia, and the Great Plains stand out as being in critical need of attention.

In addition to Arkansas, the RSCT lists Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and West Virginia as the places where rural education is most important and policy needs are most urgent.

Problems in rural schools began to be compounded in the 1980s, as educators focused on urban issues such as gang violence. As a result, rural schools missed out on both the publicity and federal dollars that would have helped sustain them.

"I think we are now seeing a focus on rural schools that hasn't been there in many years," says Richard Boyd, a former Mississippi superintendent of public schools. "It doesn't mean rural districts are any worse off than they were 10 years ago. It just means someone is paying attention now."

Cash-poor classrooms

Because of their small populations, rural districts do not have a strong tax base, leading to a chronic lack of funding. While in recent years many private foundations and individuals, such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, have poured millions into poor districts, it simply isn't enough to boost them academically.

As for technology, students in rural areas certainly aren't logged onto the Internet at the same rate as their inner-city counterparts. Only now are private foundations starting to donate computers to schools in places such as the Mississippi Delta. Forty percent of rural Arkansas students still have no Internet access.

Many scholars cite declining enrollment and revenues as the major challenges facing rural districts as well as rising special education and health-insurance costs. The cost of special education hit rural areas harder than urban districts because the federal government underfunds the states, leaving localities, which are already poor, to pick up the shortfall.

Certainly, in Arkansas, the education association is looking to the legislature, which convenes in January, to increase teachers' salaries and school funding.

Small, but well loved

But rural schools possess two major advantages that urban schools do not.

And these two benefits - the smallness of the schools and community support for public education - may be the districts' saving graces. "People have come to understand bigger isn't always better, especially when kids come from poor communities" says Dr. Tompkins. "Communities love their rural schools."

At Rison High, where graduating classes range from about 30 to 50 seniors, some boarded-up windows have darkened the inside of the halls. Many of the students' parents are chicken farmers or work for the railroad. "I know how the people of this town love this school," says Holderfield. "Most of the citizens went to school here, and the town still turns out on Friday nights for football games."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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