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Friday, 13 December 2013

Saving a Community's Heart: The Small Rural School

At the center of many small, rural communities is the school -- and as states look for ways to save money, more small districts are being consolidated. The Rural School and Community Trust, though, argues that rural students benefit from small, local schools. Included: Resources for rural school districts opposing consolidation.
Among the latest challenges to small, rural schools in the U.S. are attempts to consolidate them into large, regional districts. Some states feel that having fewer, larger districts will be more efficient and save money. But the Rural School and Community Trust, under its president, Rachel Tompkins, is helping communities hang on to their schools. The Rural Trust, a non-profit organization that supports rural schools and communities, provides communities with research showing that especially in low-income areas, small community schools can be critical to student success. The Rural Trust arms readers with the Consolidation Fight-Back Toolkit, a list of studies to convince states of rural schools' importance.
Tompkins has been with the Rural Trust since its founding in 1995. She spoke with Education World about the Rural Trust's commitment to preserving small rural schools.
Education World: What sparked the Rural School and Community Trust's interest in the school district consolidation issue?
Rachel Tompkins: Rural people in many states told us their concerns [after school districts were consolidated] about long bus rides for their children -- now sometimes as long as two hours each way -- and the loss of an essential community institution, the local school. A mounting body of research confirms the connection between small schools and student learning, particularly for children from poor communities.
EW: Why are more states looking at the issue of district consolidation?
Tompkins: Policy makers have the mistaken view that consolidation is the only way to save money and improve curriculum. This is not so and there's substantial research and practice to demonstrate that.
EW: Why are small schools so important in rural communities?
Tompkins: Schools often are the largest employer in rural communities and the major customers for local businesses. They are essential to a sustainable local economy. School facilities often are the location in town for music, sports, and all sorts of public events. Also, school principals, superintendents, and teachers are community leaders in many organizations, churches, town and county government. When schools close in rural communities, the economy and community infrastructure often suffer fatal blows.
EW: What kind of support is needed from state and federal governments for small rural schools to remain viable?
Tompkins: State and federal policies should provide resources at levels that enable hard-to-staff schools to recruit teachers. That means not basing pay on the cost of living, but on the cost of recruiting and retaining teachers. Federal policy also should continue and expand the e-rate program to enable schools to make maximum use of distance learning. In addition, state policies should encourage appropriate use of distance learning, should allow for flexibility in the ways schools structure curriculum offerings, and should encourage district collaboration in the use of teachers.


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