Earlier this week, my friend, Niki, posted a picture of two of my former classmates’ high school-aged daughters as they stood sentry above a two-decade-old banner proudly displaying “Class of ’94,” and I was swept up in a wave of nostalgia, one that I have found myself experiencing far too much as of late. The last few weeks, my social media feeds have been inundated with pictures of friends’ children, donning their finest, as they walk across stages to celebrate educational milestones, and nothing brings me to tears faster than the earnest smile of an academic achievement marching to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance.
Like these two young women, I am the product of the same rural public school system, and the trajectory of both my academic and professional lives has been significantly influenced by that experience. Essex High School, the only public high school in my county, boasted a grand total of approximately 500 students my senior year—and it housed grades 8-12 during my time there.
Without a doubt, the benefits of growing up in such a small, close knit environment cannot go unmentioned. In fact, my friends and I often talk about how our small school allowed us to diversify our activities and interests in a way that would not have been possible in a large school system. Because there was such a small population to choose from (and let’s be honest—a lack of competition), you could play a sport, be on an academic competition team, and act in the school play. In a smaller schools, there is room for a little bit of everything in your extracurricular resume.
You could spend your days from kindergarten to graduation with the same people—okay, that may have had both pros and cons—and you often went to church, grocery shopped, or ate dinner with your teachers, principals, or school board members. You were never just a number or a face in the crowd in a small school, which also may have had some disadvantages best left unspoken.
Yet for all the wonderful parts of attending a small school in an even smaller town, there were significant drawbacks, too. Post high school, I attended a mid-sized state college, and it quickly became abundantly clear that I was ill prepared for its academic demands when compared to my peers. They had the advantage of a range of advanced placement courses; my school offered 4, and AP Calculus was never going to be an option for my liberal arts-minded self. They had backgrounds in languages like Latin; we offered French and Spanish. They had computers in every classroom; we had one in the library…you get the picture.
As a sophomore in high school, I excelled in physics—in part because of a budding love of science—but largely because I had a teacher who made it accessible and easy for someone like me, someone with less than stellar math skills, to understand. After that year, she moved on to a bigger, better district. Just when I was getting excited about science and feeling as though I understood it, my guide through the world of the theory of relativity was gone. I tried to take it again in college, never forgetting my love of the subject or my positive experience in the discipline, but that comprehension and excitement were long gone; I failed the course, retaking it and passing with a slightly more acceptable D.
This scenario echoes around the country, and most rural school districts across the United States find themselves in near-desperate situations. One of the biggest challenges rural school districts face is in the recruitment and retention of strong teachers. A 2016 study of education majors showed that those with roots in their hometowns are more likely to return to teach in the school system, but rural areas are growing more accustomed to “brain drain,” which is the out-migration of people, particularly from younger and better-educated segments of the population, and there are fewer young professionals returning after leaving now more than ever before. (In the interest of full disclosure, I fall into this very category.)
In addition to the problems finding teachers, rural school districts have a hard time retaining talent as well. Yet teacher turnover has a significant effect on students and their success. As a 2013 study indicated, when teacher turnover occurs, the relationships among staff members, the cohesion with the community, and the students and their learning all suffer. Students rely on the relationships they build with their teachers, so when a teacher leaves, a domino effect on the student occurs. When my physics teacher moved on to bigger and better, my excitement for the subject diminished, and my level of college preparedness declined (not to mention the effect that had on my GPA).
Although my high school career was over 20 years ago, my experience is not an isolated one. Current data show that over 1/3 of school-aged children in the US are in rural communities. Countless studies highlight how urban students out perform their rural counterparts, yet this very population and the problems they encounter are rarely addressed in the country’s big conversations about education.
I won’t profess to have all the answers to the problems associated with student success in rural communities, but I would offer up at least one. Invest in the people on the front lines, the teachers and administrators out there doing the work every single day in and out of the classroom. And let me be clear—I don’t simply mean financial (although I know of absolutely zero educators who would argue they have too much money at their disposal).
I was a success because of teachers and administrators who insisted on helping me find a way to supplement what my school system could not offer.
Virginia Brown: The librarian who introduced me to and encouraged my applying to a special summer program at UVA (one of the most defining choices of my life).
Renee Crawford: The English teacher who invited me on a trip to DC with a group of older students in an attempt to expose me to art and culture and conversations beyond my small town’s borders, fostering my love affair with all of the above.
Jane Kurczak: The debate and forensics coach whose unwavering faith in me led me to an accomplished career in competitive arguing—a skill plenty of people have cursed her for over the years.
If we want to begin the journey toward leveling the playing field for small-town students all across America, then we have to start at the beating heart of each and every one of the schools tasked with preparing, encouraging, and educating these children. These students are some of the most vulnerable in our country, and we owe them more than long-term substitutes, burnt-out support staff, and struggling school districts. In fact, I’d go so far as to say we owe them—and the men and women who join them in those halls every school year—so much more. Because if you ask me, they are worth it.
 Moller, Moller, and Schmit, “Examining the Teacher Pipeline: Will They Stay or Will They Go?”
 Ronfeldt, Loeb, and Wyckoff “How Teacher Turnover Harms Student Achievement”
 Moller, Moller, and Schmidt.