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Frontier Schools Share Difficulties, Survival Secrets

Frontier schools, or modern versions of one-room schoolhouses, struggle financially because of low enrollment, but they manage to keep their doors open by operating multi-grade classrooms and making their buildings integral parts of the community, according to a new study.

The fall issue of The Rural Educator, the official journal of the National Rural Education Association, featured an article about this topic, "Challenges and Sustainability Practices of Frontier Schools in Montana." The full research report is available on the Montana Small Schools Alliance Web site. The article in the journal won't be available online for at least a couple of months.

The Montana Small Schools Alliance commissioned the study on frontier schools, which are more specifically defined as a school districts with 200 students or fewer in communities with five or fewer people per square mile. In Montana, 42 of its 56 counties fit that description.

Nationally, the percentage of elementary students in public schools with fewer than 200 students is highest in rural areas at 10.4 percent, and that's at least three times more than any other geographic area, according to the study.

Researchers Claudette Morton, of the Montana Small Schools Alliance, and Hobart Harmon, an independent consultant, surveyed teachers, administrators and school board chairs in 141 frontier Montana school districts. They also held six meetings with community supporters of the schools from February 2009 through April 2010.

More than three-fourths of the surveyed districts enrolled 75 or fewer students, and nearly one-third were made mostly of low-income students. It's interesting to note that 24 percent said they had no students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch, a federal program based on poverty, and that's possibly because those schools did not offer a lunch program, according to the study. Many frontier schools don't have a kitchen or cafeteria.

School officials said the top five challenges they faced included:
• low student enrollment (28.3 percent ranked it as most important);
• inadequate financial resources (9.4 percent ranked it as most important);
• unrealistic federal expectations (9.4 percent ranked it as most important);
• academically unmotivated students (4.7 percent ranked it as most important);
• mixed grade levels of students (4.7 percent ranked it as most important).

Most said low enrollment was a problem because fewer students translated into less funding, elimination of staff, and possible school closure or consolidation. Those who cited inadequate financial resources said a lack of money affected everything from the physical buildings to the district's overall ability to provide programs for all students, and that unrealistic federal expectations elicited concerns about over-emphasis on testing and a general preference for local control.

The challenges noted least frequently were: student use of illegal drugs (2.5 percent); meeting teacher certification requirements (5.5 percent) and student use of alcohol (5.9 percent).

Researchers grouped the practices that helped keep these small schools alive into four categories: general operations, staffing, fiscal, and distance-learning technology. For general operations, 67.9 percent of school officials said operating multi-grade classrooms helped keep their schools open, while 41.9 percent said using school buildings for important community events did so. In terms of staffing, making special in-service opportunities available and creating partnerships with other districts were among the top practices.

Frontier schools formed consortia of districts to leverage purchasing power, and they sought bids and comparison pricing to stretch their dollars. Finally, rural districts used distance-learning technology to deliver professional development and provide enrichment opportunities for students.

"Educators and other residents live on the frontier because they identify with and want to contribute to this unique way of life, but increasingly they face challenges that attract little attention from those who could help provide meaningful solutions," according to the study. "Frontier schools are an important segment of public education that deserve the urgent attention of policymakers, researchers, technical assistance providers and private foundations."

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