Challenges of Rural Schools: An Educator’s Perspective

By Eatonville Schools Director of Innovation and Learning Michael Farmer

Just because kids grow up and attend schools in rural areas doesn’t mean they should suffer at the hands of their isolation, be it real or perceived. Students attending rural schools across the country deserve the same great opportunities as our students in our denser city centers and urban areas. In fact, with the changing face of rural America and the growing divide between those rural areas and the cities of the 21st century, the need for quality education in the country’s “country” is more important now than ever.

A recent article in The Atlantic compares the disparity in the lives of two people, one living in a rural part of Indiana, and the other in Indianapolis. Opportunity flows into the urban areas of the country as it does in Indianapolis. In the rural parts of our country, the opposite is often the case, as it is in Indiana. What the article calls a “divergence in fortunes” around higher education “coincided with another divergence — that between America’s growing cities and its struggling rural regions.” The rise of computers made certain people in the economy more productive and desirable than others. Whereas, prior to 1980, the supply of workers was a larger impact on wages. In short, the new e-conomy has left a portion of America behind. (Samuels, 2017)

How has this played in one small town not that far from Seattle and the Silicon Forest? In the spring of 2015, the Eatonville School District, a district of roughly 2000 students nestled at the base of Mt. Rainier in southeastern Pierce County about 70 miles from Seattle just beyond the edge of the Puget Sound Metropolis, ran and failed a capital bond. In that bond were numerous items aimed at improving the schools, facilities, and equipment. Our technology team had added several items to the bond’s total amount to equal about 5% of the total.

Of that list of tech items, most aimed at improving the district’s network infrastructure, was mobile wireless access points for the district’s school buses. In conversations with stakeholders, staff, and the school board, this made sense. Our kids spend a lot of time on the bus! In some cases over and hour each way, to and from school. Think about it, how much could a motivated kid get done in two hours each day with access to the internet and a device? In talking with the community’s voters, this one ask was — surprisingly — a deal breaker. This feeling was epitomized with a comment on a Facebook group page where someone commented about the wireless access on buses with, “We don’t need any of that fancy city technology out here.”

While opinions like this represent a small minority of our community, there are still people who don’t see the coming divide. As the Seattle region has continued to grow — thanks to software, airplanes, and coffee — a lot of what ails areas like Indiana hasn’t hit some of Washington State’s rural areas. Even with that, unless students are prepared for the 21st century workforce, and learn the skills necessary for jobs that don’t exist yet, they will be left behind.

Ultimately, this is about equity. In 2017 equity is a common school conversation topic, particularly in terms of having an equity “lens” on education. Increasingly, that lens includes geography, especially in the form of a student’s zip code and what that might tell us about their need for intervention and support, or their potential for success. We are largely considering zip codes in our urban areas again, and not looking at the zip codes of the countryside.

In lieu of compiling a laundry list of examples, two key recent events will suffice. In Pierce County, students within the 253-area code, which is the bulk of the county, have access to college scholarships and opportunities for post-secondary education. Since Eatonville has a 360-area code, our students are not eligible, even though they would attend institutes of higher education in the 253-area code. In this case, geography strikes against Eatonville. As was already mentioned, Eatonville is in Pierce County too, along with all the other eligible students who happen to have the right area code.

Another malady that is the result of Eatonville’s geography is our extreme difficulty in getting student teachers. Eatonville is simply too far from the region’s colleges and universities. So, what is a district to do? Well, when the Nisqually Land Trust approaches you about taking possession of roughly 4 acres of farmland and buildings, including a barn and farmhouse, you take them. While the remainder of the farm was purchased years earlier and combined with other land in the valley for a larger salmon restoration project, the land around the buildings couldn’t be restored. In a partnership with Pacific Lutheran University, the old farm house is on its way to becoming a dorm for student teachers. At the same time, the surrounding land will become a STEM and outdoor center, where students will learn about agriculture, and grow food for school lunches and the local food bank. In this case, geography wins, a working farm will soon reside within the boundary of the school district.

Regardless of area codes, economic divides, or geographic isolation, teachers and leaders in small rural districts need to work harder to give all our kids every advantage possible, like the farm. This takes many forms, we must talk with our legislators so they stay abreast of a small school district’s needs, especially around staffing with secondary teachers saddled with teaching multiple subjects. One teacher has two different math classes, two sections of physics, and a Collection of Evidence class that helps students graduate who haven’t met standard on state assessments.

We need to seek grants and alternative funding. Careful attention must be paid with an eye on sustainability. Funding that support implementation, capacity building, and sustainability truly helps. Grants leading to additional funding needs do not.

And most important, we must advocate for the small school, whether at a local, regional, state, or national level. Small districts also need representation on boards at universities and businesses connected to education and professional organizations need representation at the leadership level from small school districts.

With some hard work, dedication, and some thinking outside of the box, small will not equal isolated, small will not mean less opportunity. Instead small will mean be the same opportunity just with a more pastoral view.

Michael Farmer has been an educator for over twenty years. After spending the first ten years of his career in the classroom teaching, science, history, and leadership in the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area. Michael began his career in administration, serving as a Dean of Students and assistant principal in the Tacoma School District. In 2011, Michael became a Director of Instructional Technology. Michael is currently the Executive Director of Innovation and Learning in the Eatonville School District. Throughout Michael’s entire career he has been an advocate for innovation and worked hard to get more technology into the hands of more kids. Michael strongly believes that all students deserve an education that prepares them for the rest of the 21st Century and that technology is the key to transforming teaching and learning. He tweets at @farmer1701.

Are you an educator in a rural school? Future Ready Schools ® , a planning and resource hub for personalized, digital learning, has recently released a personalized learning implementation guidebook specifically for rural schools. Download the full guide here:

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Samuels, Alana. “America’s Great Divergence.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 30 Jan. 2017. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

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