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Rural Schools' Unique Challenges

In our obsession with inner-city schools, we forget that about one-fourth of all students in public schools are in rural areas of the country.  Their problems unfortunately are given short shrift at a time when the goal is to eliminate the achievement gap ("Can a School's Tech Program Take a Rural Town out of Poverty?" The Atlantic, Dec. 11).

The No Child Left Behind Act says a school district is rural if the number of students in average daily attendance at all its schools is less than 600. But the National Center for Education Statistics says the term applies to a town having fewer than 2,500 residents. The different definitions set the stage for confusion when studies attempt to compare seemingly equal schools in the same state. 

Geography plays a special role in student achievement in rural schools because they are often so far apart from the homes of the students they serve that long bus trips drain academic attentiveness and leave little time for after-school activities. Long distance is compounded by heavy snow that can last for many months, making roads impassable.

Contrary to widespread belief, rural communities are no longer overwhelmingly composed of native-born children whose grandparents likely attended the same schools. For example, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgie, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee have experienced a large immigrant surge. 

Moreover, poverty in rural schools often exceeds poverty in inner-city schools.  New Mexico has the nation's highest percentage of families with school-age children living below the federal poverty line - at 23 percent.  

These problems are daunting enough, but I maintain that recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers are the greatest challenge of all.  The truth is that too few new teachers are willing to move to remote areas of the country.  The cost of housing is certainly lower than in the suburbs and in the cities, but the lack of other amenities is enough to dissuade all but a few teachers to accept positions in rural schools.

Rural schools are trying to compensate by the use of high-speed Internet connections.  In rural areas such as Piedmont, Alabama, less than 60 percent of residents have such access, compared to the national average of 71 percent.  This gap helps explain Alabama's dismal rankings on national standardized tests.  Its fourth- and eighth-grade students rank near the bottom compared to students from other states.  But even when funding is found to give all students laptops for online classes, nothing matches the presence of a live teacher in the classroom.  Moreover, when the Internet is down, instruction is put on hold while teachers switch to backup plans using textbooks.

Until we discard our preconceived assumptions about rural schools and address their unique realities, students will continue to be shortchanged.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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