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How Two Rural Schools Prepare Kids for College, Part 1

Students from rural areas have lower college enrollment rates than their urban peers, but once rural students get to college, they're more likely to graduate.

Because of the unique challenges rural schools face in sending their students to post-secondary education, the American Youth Policy Forum hosted a webinar on Thursday to highlight rural schools that were overcoming those difficulties.

It featured two schools—Patton Springs School in Afton, Texas, and Loving High School in Loving, N.M.

Both rural schools could be models for others. This entry will focus on Patton Springs. I'll do another post next week about Loving High.

Patton Springs enrolls about 100 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and about 80 percent are from low-income families. It's the only school in its 396-square-mile West Texas district, and the nearest Walmart is 70 miles away.

Despite its isolation, the school is excelling. It's received the highest rating Texas school districts can receive for its student achievement for the past 14 years, and its graduation rate is 100 percent.

Superintendent Larry McClenny said the school pushes students to achieve, and one of the ways it does that is through dual-credit courses. Students can graduate from high school with 30 hours of college credit. Both of McClenny's children had that many hours when they finished, and both finished college in three years.

"It saves parents a lot of money to be able to get in numerous hours in high school," he said.

One of the reasons this small school has been able to offer so many dual-credit courses is because many of its faculty members are qualified to teach at the high school and college levels. In Texas, being qualified to do that means having a master's degree and 18 graduate level hours in the subject they're teaching.

Still, the school has lost some teachers in the past few years and had to resort to online dual-credit courses. The classes are supervised, and students can seek help from certified teachers elsewhere in the school.

"You still have the nurturing that needs to happen," he said. "High school teachers are nurturing, and college professors are not."

McClenny sees a direct correlation between the number of credits earned and the likelihood of students receiving a post-secondary education. The school pays for dual-credit courses through a combination of state funds, student activity fees (the school canceled its senior trips and uses that money toward these classes), and parents' payments.

Some of the program's key supports include an adopt-a-student program, in which students who need additional instruction are identified early, ACT prep classes every other year, and financial aid nights to help students fill out college forms. The Texas Virtual School Network also has enabled the school to offer classes it couldn't otherwise, such as physics and Spanish.

Some of the biggest challenges have been figuring out ways to support students as they transition to college, the state's graduation requirements bias toward students earning four-year college credits rather than a career and technology education, and convincing families of the value in technical training during such a difficult economy, McClenny said.

"Many of these kids are really present-oriented," he said. "What we're trying to do is get the kids future-oriented."

If a school with 100 students spread over 12 grades can figure out how to have such strong dual-credit offerings, then it would seem other schools could do the same. After McClenny talked about the school's supports and challenges, I still wondered what makes its situation different from other schools.

I'll close part 1with an interesting comment made by John White, the U.S. Department of Education's deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach. After the leaders of the two rural schools spoke, White talked more broadly about how the U.S. Department of Education is supporting the college-and-career readiness efforts of rural schools.

White visits rural communities across the country, and he said he often hears the same question: Why should a rural student go to college when there aren't jobs in their communities? His answer is that he and others often hear employers saying they have job openings, but they can't find the skilled workers to do those jobs.

"Young students and adults can benefit from college-and-career training in a variety of ways," he said.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week.

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