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Some Rural Turnaround Schools Face Additional Challenges, Study Says

Rural schools that have received funding through the federal School Improvement Grant program since 2010 have faced extra challenges as a result of their remote locations, according to a recent report.

The U.S. Department of Education's Study of School Turnaround examined nine rural schools that received grants beginning in the 2010-11 school year to identify how rural environments influence and affect the improvement process.

While the nine rural schools found challenges that have also been reported by non-rural schools, like low student motivation and staff morale, the study concludes that the remote locations and large geographic boundaries of the schools presented additional challenges that have possibly hindered improvement. Nationwide, rural schools tend to have far smaller school populations, fewer staff members, and lower teacher salaries than urban schools. 

Over the course of three years, the rural schools struggled to recruit and retain teachers, which school officials attribute to long commutes and isolated communities that lack adequate housing. Schools also reported a lack of parental involvement, possibly due to high gas prices and limited transportation options.  

Officials at all nine schools said the remoteness of the campuses affected and limited the strategies that were used during the turnaround or transformation process. All schools increased student learning time, but due to transportation costs several schools opted to increase time within the established schedule rather than by extending the school day. Eight of the schools established professional development time within the school day, but several teachers said the small staff sizes at their schools meant there were limited opportunities to collaborate with teachers who teach the same subject. 

Several schools offered at least one type of financial incentive to attract and retain teachers, which the report said was an attempt to "counteract the perceived undesirability of these schools." These incentives ranged from performance-based pay to compensation for additional work hours, to signing bonuses.

Under the SIG program, schools that are not reopened under a charter school operator or closed completely can adopt either a turnaround model or a transformation model. Under both models, the school must replace the principal and meet a set of requirements, although the turnaround model requires a school to rehire no more than 50 percent of the existing teaching staff. Eight of the nine rural schools in the report adopted a transformation model. According to the report, rural SIG schools nationwide are more likely to adopt this model, mostly due to the difficulty of recruiting teachers to fill open positions. 

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