Rural Schools in a Global Economy

Nurturing community schools demands effective management practices and a keen sense of place by Hobart Harmon

More than 45 percent of the nation's schools and 50 percent of the local school districts are located in rural areas and small towns. Serving as a district administrator in such places offers some of the most challenging experiences in American public education.

Perhaps foremost among the challenges is how administrators in rural districts with small schools can provide the curriculum and extracurricular opportunities that will prepare all students for success in a global economy. Equally difficult is the dilemma school district administrators face when they pursue state, federal or global educational goals. Administrators find themselves between a rock and a hard place when parents and the community question the relationship of such goals to locally determined needs of their students and their community.

You've heard the oft-quoted saying "all politics are local." Successful district administrators in rural areas know well that "all education is local" when it comes to advocating what's best for students. In a rural area, effective management practices and a keen sense of place are the cornerstones that enable a school district administrator to think global and act locally—all the time keeping hold of his or her leadership position.

What are some of these practices? And can we still create and nurture community schools in a society captivated by a global economy?

Fiscal Practices

The superintendent of a rural district in Virginia recently sought help in developing his ideas for improving educational opportunities at a small school located on a mountain top. Fewer than 100 students attended the school, which served grades K-12.

At first, a colleague and I from the Appalachia Educational Laboratory, a nonprofit corporation under contract to the U.S. Department of Education to serve four Southeastern states, conducted a telephone conference call involving the superintendent and several other rural superintendents across the nation to discuss key issues and practices for meeting the needs of such a school. We then used results of the conversation to develop a questionnaire and conduct a national study of superintendents to find out how they coped with the same set of problems (rural area, small school, limited budget).

We identified several fiscal practices used by these districts to maximize resources available to the school. The practices included, in order of frequency, the following:

* Seeking bids and comparison pricing for all purchases.

Since they generally are not sought after by large suppliers, small school systems have a tendency to remain loyal to their current suppliers. Bidding generates substantial savings especially when all of the schools in the system consolidate their bids. Even greater savings may be generated when they combine their bids with other school systems.

Many regional and intermediate educational service agencies and some state departments of education provide this service. Suppliers are also very sensitive to comparison pricing.

* Paying all bills promptly where discounts are available.

Prompt payment generates a quick cash flow for vendors and late payments are a cost factor of doing business. Some vendors provide a discount for ready payment. The district’s finance office may have to obtain special permission from the governing board to allow timely payments where discounts apply.

* Being aggressive in energy conservation measures.

Utilities are normally a high cost area for smaller systems. Older facilities are often energy wasters. Start by asking school personnel and students to assist in energy conservation. Place timers on heating and cooling systems to eliminate high energy use when the buildings are not occupied. Require users of the facility after normal school hours to pay for actual energy costs.

Consider conducting an energy audit and developing a plan for becoming energy efficient. Many small school systems cannot readily afford to install energy-efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, proper insulation and thermal windows and doors.

* Joining a regional educational service agency or a consortium to provide special services and programs.

Regional educational service agencies may provide many cost effective services such as sharing specialized personnel (speech therapists, psychologists, computer services, data management, professional development, purchasing) that often are required but not easily affordable by small systems. Forming consortiums to provide educational programs or to purchase needed services and goods makes educational and budgetary sense.

* Increasing the student count.

This might be accomplished by implementing all-day kindergarten or incentives to increase attendance at all levels. Since most states allocate funding on a per-pupil basis, increasing attendance generates more funds and provides more personnel for the schools. Having funds for an additional teacher in a small school is significant when assigning bus, lunchroom, playground, extracurricular and other personnel duties.

Staffing Issues

Staffing small rural schools also can be a major problem. The staffing practices used successfully by the districts in our study included the following:

* Obtaining waivers from state certification requirements.

Specialized personnel or classes with low enrollments are often cost prohibitive for small rural schools. Often existing personnel in the school can provide the services or teaching, but they may not be fully certified to do so. A waiver allows the school to use existing resources and still meet the needs of the students.

* Obtaining federal or state grants to fund key positions.

Small rural schools also may be eligible for grants due to the high poverty of the area. Grant writing may be a laborious process, but creativity and resourcefulness is synonymous with rural folks. Grants for special-needs students and for enhancing the schools curriculum enrich the entire school.

* Redirecting district funds to the school's priorities.

School systems know the value of planning and prioritizing. Limited resources requires directing funds toward the schools’ major objectives. Goals and objectives developed by school staff enable allocation of limited funds with school-wide support.

* Increasing use of community volunteers for non-teaching duties.

Rural schools are also community schools. Getting help from volunteers to perform non-teaching duties frees up time for staffs that probably already are overburdened with extra duties and saves money for the district in some areas.

Expanding Activity Range

Offering a range of extracurricular activities is important in most rural communities but difficult to do in small schools. Among the practices some school districts found successful were these:

* Paying teachers a supplement to perform extracurricular duties.

Supplemental pay rarely equals the teacher’s regular rate, but the additional money is appreciated and it conveys value for the teacher's time. Students benefit greatly from the extracurricular activities in a small rural school.

* Providing students with transportation to participate in after-school activities.

Rural districts often have students who must travel long distances to get to the school. An activity bus that runs on a scheduled route after school throughout the district enables many students to participate without placing a hardship on their families.

* Allowing students to participate at other schools in the district.

Small rural schools find it difficult to offer a wide range of sports for boys and girls, and some schools may not have enough students to even support a sports program. Combining sports programs allows for expansion of offerings, enhances the quality of the teams and provides opportunities that may not otherwise be possible.

* Using community volunteers to conduct activities.

Community members sometimes are willing to give their time and lend their skills to support activities of their school. Small rural schools rarely have the personnel to support all the activities needed to meet student interests. Community members can fill this void to enrich the curricular and extracurricular experiences of students in accordance with state and county guidelines.

Mixed Signals

Effective management practices alone will not satisfy the desire for parents and others in the rural community to feel the school is connected to their values and way of life. David Matthews, president of the Kettering Foundation, describes this dilemma for all of public education in his recent book, Is There a Public for Public Education? Well-intentioned administrators can send wrong signals to the public in their zeal to improve education for students.

For example, colleagues and I visited a school district in Pennsylvania at the request of the school board president and superintendent. The superintendent and his board members were anxious to improve school facilities, and maintain strong community schools, while avoiding divisive school consolidation battles.

We frequently heard educators in the schools we visited say with frustration, "The people here want to keep this school in the community." These educators seemed to miss the connection of the school as a multipurpose facility tied to a sense of place in a rural area. Major mistrust developed between the community and educators when educators in the district office pushed for school consolidation as a way to save money needed to fund technology in the schools that would remain after consolidation.

What ensued was an election of new board members who formed unanimous opposition to so-called "progressive" educators who were seen to be placing their desire for technology ahead of the community's interests. The school district’s professional leadership believed the latest technology was needed for graduates to be globally competitive, while the community saw applications of technology as important mainly for helping students master basic skills, including computer use.

We also recently visited a superintendent of a small school district in Idaho with less than 200 students in grades K-12. Expecting to see an old rundown school, we were surprised to see a newly constructed facility. We asked the superintendent, who was also the school principal and earlier had served for 15 years as a member of the school board, how he accomplished this. He quickly recounted how after seven unsuccessful attempts the community finally approved a levy to construct the school.

Volunteer work by members of the community to tear down the old school saved the district thousands of dollars. Additional money was saved when students took on the landscape work. The superintendent was especially appreciative of how the local telephone company had wired the new school for access to the Internet and other telecommunications technology. "This is truly a community school," he said, adding, "The school can now build on its traditional role as a resource facility for the community. It can now provide the community access to telecommunications technology and the potential it holds for sustaining the school and the community."

As a lifelong resident of the rural area, the superintendent keenly understood his community and its needs—and that the school was a resource for more than schooling.

Hobart Harmon is senior manager of the National Rural Education Specialty at the Appalachia Educational Laboratory, P.O. Box 1348, Charleston, W.Va. 25325-1348. E-mail: harmonh@ael.org