Small Town Schools: Part 2

A little over a week ago, a sense of nostalgia sparked an interest in the state of the public education system I attended for K-12. I started my research, and I wasn’t necessarily shocked to learn that many of the challenges we’d faced 20+ years ago were ongoing struggles in the Essex County Public School system. The town hasn’t changed that much, and I maintain strong relationships with friends and family in the area; therefore, some of what I read felt familiar.

In my last post, I admitted that I could only offer one possible solution to some of the challenges rural school districts face, but—true to form—I wasn’t satisfied with just one. I spent the last week researching, reading, and discussing current trends in rural education in an effort to flush out that list and unearth not only what is happening in rural schools (and in particular ECPS), but I also needed to understand why in an effort to figure out how positive change can occur.

Yet, I wanted to be very careful. There is a danger in looking back on my personal experience in that education system because, quite honestly, education has changed a lot since I roamed those halls. As a public school student, I was not subjected to standardized tests and benchmarks, a robust reliance on technology, or a shrinking worldview. All of those things have contributed to the change in education’s landscape the last two decades; however, I believe that at its core, the act of educating children isn’t nearly as influenced by change as the environment in which this education happens is.

It is indisputable that outside factors like poverty, hunger, parental involvement, and geography play a role in a student’s academic success. And while I believe these are all worthy of attention, what I wanted to learn more about was a focus on the schools and what they can—and often do—do to help fill the deficits many rural students face.

In all my research, there seemed to be some common underlying factors that people far more knowledgeable than me suggest are at the heart of rural school struggles.

Unfortunately, geography plays a significant role in a rural school system’s success. Logically, this makes sense, and while the obstacles that come from an isolated geographical location may seem pretty obvious on the surface, there is one particular element to small town locations that many people overlook.

Currently, about 39% of the rural population in America, that’s about 23 million Americans, do not have access to “fast” internet services[1]. For someone like me, someone who has easy access to high speed cable, the thought of not having Netflix is a bit crippling, but for students and educators in these areas, the problem reaches much farther than just their entertainment habits. Where we once relied on books to supplement our knowledge, today’s student is expected to not only know how to navigate the vast resources provided by the internet, but their education also often relies upon their access to these resources. Education departments train new teachers in the latest technological tools and resources, and technology is used to provide teachers and staff with professional development opportunities and access to new strategies and teaching concepts. Yet the absence of the most basic requirement for these incredible tools, high speed internet access, makes accessing this information nearly impossible. Students are at a disadvantage because so much of what we know about the world and how we learn is tied to technology. Sure there are resources like public libraries, but if you are too young to drive or don’t have transportation (and rural America rarely has any form of robust public transportation system), then even those options seem inaccessible.

Further exacerbating this learning environment are the standardized tests and the global one-size-fits-all mandates that states enforce. The problematic nature of standardized testing reaches far deeper than most people realize. Research shows that school districts and school boards make decisions about the allocation of funds and even remove administrators based on these benchmarks even though research has indicated that the accuracy of this type of data should be questioned.[2] In fact, in some states, a school’s funding allotment is contingent upon its testing numbers with a lower scoring school receiving less funding than a higher scoring school.

I won’t profess to understand the logic in that model, but what this demonstrates is not only the importance placed on these benchmarks, but also the significant repercussions a school can face if it fails to meet these standards regardless of the contributing factors—some of which are far outside a school’s control.

These are just two examples of some of the limitations rural school districts face, and while they are significant, the situation is not hopeless. Because for every limitation I read about or considered, there are two significant factors that every piece of research indicated rural schools have to their advantage: strong leadership and community involvement.

From the local school board to the high school principal to the support staff, educational leaders are critical in the overall success of any student, but they are especially crucial for a small-town student.

In a study of successful rural schools, research indicates that a people-centered leadership approach is key to healthy schools.[3] This research further argues that successful schools are built around successful principals, and in rural populations, principals forge solid relationships between the school and the community; with and among staff, parents, students, and community stakeholders; and with neighboring schools so that collaboration among faculty members can fill in the gaps geography creates. In doing so, the successful principal boosts morale and job performance among staff and faculty members—and I think we can all agree that a happy and high performing staff can only benefit the students and their learning environment.

When rural students were asked what helped them achieve academic success, they repeatedly cited favorite teachers as positive role models—not just for academic growth but also for personal development.[4] Again, this may seem obvious, but students cannot build these relationships with the high turnover rural schools experience; therefore, combatting this problem needs to be high on a school district’s list of things to remedy.

Yet leaders cannot carry the weight alone. Resilience in rural schools is grounded in the same things that serve as a small town’s lifeblood: community. All members of a school’s community must work together to help one another achieve the kind of school that encourages and promotes success for its students, which ultimately feeds into a thriving economy and growing opportunities within the town.

Rural school districts experience a type of flight out of them, especially when they struggle. Admittedly, there are plenty of reasons a parent might choose a different educational pathway for a child (special circumstances that need focused resources, geographical proximity to jobs, and religious choices just to name a few); however, a school can only benefit from learning what it can do to better serve the students in its district. Maybe a parent expresses concern over the lack of Advanced Placement courses as a motivating factor for moving a child out of the system. Maybe the parent commutes and with a lack of after care options, he/she needs the child to be closer for pick ups.

If local parents are choosing to remove a child from the system, then the system is obligated to find out why. Of course there will be factors beyond the school’s control, but there will also be opportunities to learn how to best serve the community of students in its jurisdiction; however, this won’t ever happen if a dialogue doesn’t occur. From what I understand, the superintendent of the Essex County Public School system didn’t send his own child to the schools he oversees; maybe those in decision-making positions could start with him to get this initiative started.

School administrators must be open to suggestions from community stakeholders, and they must recognize their role in building resilience in their students. Rural students experience social, economic, and educational challenges specific to this demographic, and those in charge are in a unique position to build healthy relationships with students, parents, and community members.

But communities have to get involved, too. A small town’s survival is reliant upon the contributions of its members. If you want to see industry and economic growth—which every member of the community benefits from—then everyone has to be equally invested in supporting the next generation and the schools tasked with educating it.

Lastly, and I cannot overstress this one—support those teachers, principals, coaches, volunteers, and support staff who are out there making a difference in these students’ lives. Maybe consider participating in one of those roles. In a small town, there are simply too many obstacles for a child to face alone, and many of them are beyond all of our control. But some of them are within our reach, and nothing ever blossomed through neglect.

If we want to improve our schools and if we want to create strong, successful students, then we have to start here. No one of these recommendations is going to solve the problems, but when applied as a collective, I believe they can make a difference.


[1]“Rural America has a serious internet problem.” The Week. 15 June 2017.

[2] Brenda McMahon. “Seeing the Strengths in a Rural School: Educators’ Concepts of Individual and Environmental Resilience Factors.” Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 2015.

[3] Jane Preston and Kristopher E. R. Barnes. “Successful Leadership in Rural Schools: Cultivating Collaboration” The Rural Educator. Winter 2017.

[4] McMahon, Winter 2017.

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