Rural Education Report Card

Even as Touchstones of Rural Communities, Schools Face Challenges

Todd Hearne hired current North Vernon Elementary School principal Nikki Johnson during his time at the school, leaving it in capable hands. (Progressive Farmer photo by Dave Charrlin)

Six years ago, when former principal Todd Hearne took the reins of North Vernon Elementary (NVE) School, in Jennings County, Indiana, things looked pretty dire. "Because this school was struggling, we were actually farming out any student whose parents wanted them to go to a different school," he says. "We had 125 kiddos allowed to enroll in other elementary schools in the county because of our poor state academic rating."

Eighty percent of U.S. land mass is rural, approximately 50% of school districts lie within rural areas, and a little more than 20% of students attend those schools. That's nearly 10 million children getting a K through 12 education in rural America.

Urban education issues often seem to get the most news coverage. But discounting rural education would be a mistake, says John Hill, executive director of the National Rural Education Association. "One in five students attends rural schools. This is a critical mass of students we ought to be concerned about.

"We produce food in rural areas," Hill continues. "A lot of answers can be solved here -- food, alternative energy, fossil fuels ... It's critical that rural students be well-educated so they can participate in the global economy."

Education aside, rural schools serve as community touchstones -- a way to knit together small towns. But the school districts often face heady challenges stemming largely from financial woes and coupled with less dense populations than urban and suburban counterparts.

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES

North Vernon Elementary School sits in a socioeconomically oppressed area. Jennings County mostly comprises manufacturing-type, blue-collar jobs -- several factories are a mainstay here -- and family farms fringe the outskirts.

Parents who haven't succeeded in secondary education don't necessarily place value in it; historically, vocabulary scores tend to be poor here. Hearne adds that 75 of the school's 711 students are members of the weekend backpack club -- subsidized food gets sent home with them so the child has enough to eat.

But, Hearne says, "these are just obstacles ... there are ways of getting around them. We never use challenges as an excuse. And, when I came in, I saw no reason this school couldn't be successful."

He began implementing changes, naming now-assistant principal Nikki Johnson as instructional coach. "Under Nikki's foresight and curriculum background, we made subtle changes to give our teachers more ammunition ... and time for professional development," Hearne says.

"We came together and created a schoolwide plan, projecting out five years what we wanted to accomplish, what were all our deficits, what was going on with the kids," Johnson adds. "Our staff was working their tails off, but we had to get everyone focused on that same goal—what's best for our kids." One plan included developing an across-the-school curriculum approach to aid children struggling with vocabulary scores.

Finances seem to be the linchpin of most academic challenges -- from drawing teachers to rural areas, to federal funding for students and programs, to overall rural economic development. "Most funding formulas are based on numbers enrolled," Hill explains. "As student numbers decrease, the amount of dollars per student drops."

Attracting teachers to rural schools has historically been problematic, but loan-forgiveness programs and incentives have made some leeway. Another challenge is finding teachers with broad expertise. "In a small rural setting, you often need teachers licensed to teach multiple subjects," explains Scott Turney, head of the Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association (ISRSA).

Resources present another issue -- from student transportation, particularly in spread-out areas, to slow Internet and special program funding, such as AP classes. "When you have smaller numbers of students, especially at the secondary level," Hill adds, "it becomes more difficult to offer a variety of advanced classes."

GROUP PROJECTS

But for every challenge, there are ways to cross the hurdles. One big boon comes in sharing resources within a school and community. "Vocational and special education co-ops, and educational service centers are a very positive business model here in rural Indiana districts," says Turney, adding that he sees school districts creating partnerships with other districts and business entities, too. "Those districts fortunate to have good Internet connectivity make more and more use of resources from afar that they can bring into their schools."

"All these things help with the capacity issue while maintaining rural schools and community identity," Hill adds.

Offers Turney: "Our education system in the country was founded on small communities that gather together. I find the rural culture is very supportive of education. If you go into a small rural area, that school system or school is a big focus of that community."

HIGH MARKS

In Indiana, the state evaluation systems give schools an A-to-F rating. "Of our members in the ISRSA, in the 2014-15 school year, we had no school district in our membership that was below a C," Turney reports. "About three-quarters of those were As or Bs. That really bodes well for rural education."

Another thing that speaks highly of the can-do power of rural education? For the past three years, NVE has achieved an A rating, up from a C-rated school five years prior. The U.S. Department of Education reports a national average graduation rate of 81%, yet Jennings County school district's rate stands at a strong 87%. "Rallying teachers with common goals and getting them to better communicate student needs with one another slowly and steadily began improving student performance," Hearne says.

"In a rural area like where we are, there's a homegrown pride that fosters a sense of community," he continues. "And that is a fundamental building block that you can keep building off of."

MAKING HEADWAY

-- In 1980, 41.8% of rural residents didn't complete high school. By a 2009-2013 survey period, that number had dropped to 16.2%.

-- Per a 2013 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, "Public school students in rural areas perform better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than their peers in cities and towns, but generally not as well as their peers in suburban areas."

-- The percentage of fourth-graders in rural areas scoring at the proficient achievement level (35%) was larger than in cities (26%) and towns (29%), but smaller than in suburban areas (37%).

-- For a comprehensive look at state-by-state education statistics, visit http://www.ers.usda.gov/… and click a state.

(AG/SK)