Sustaining Small Rural High Schools

The leadership role begins with a pro-community mindset by Craig Howley
Sustaining Small Rural High Schools
The leadership role begins with a pro-community mindset

Too often, people think that because rural high schools usually are smaller, rural communities don’t actually have a size issue. It’s a misconception. Smaller rural high schools are traditional targets for closure because per-pupil operating costs seem high in comparison to larger, more centrally located schools.

Today, because of current revenue shortages in the states, the odds of closure are probably stronger than they have been in recent decades.

Huge city high schools enroll lots of students, and the problem of making these schools smaller is receiving considerable attention. Huge schools depress the odds for academic success in impoverished city neighborhoods, according to researchers, and the need for smaller schools boils down to being held accountable for closing the achievement gap. Many cities are working at the problem, among them Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York.

Yet according to the Bureau of the Census, rural poverty exceeds urban poverty by 10 to 30 percent, depending on whether the comparison is with central cities or metro counties as a whole. Because of the links among school size, poverty and student achievement, this means size is definitely at issue in rural places in the age of accountability. The difference is that sustaining smaller rural high schools is the main challenge in rural areas—not making large schools smaller. Of course, states like, Florida, Georgia and Hawaii have some of the largest rural high schools in the nation and in these states the rural size issue is a two-headed beast. In these and similar states, conventional wisdom about size and per-pupil expenditures has succeeded in replicating the urban problem.

A Leadership Role
In a recent book about small rural high schools, fellow researcher Hobart Harmon and I asked a group of 25 rural superintendents in all regions of the country to tell us what they did to sustain their small rural high schools. All the superintendents operated rural districts that sustained—or had recently closed—at least one high school enrolling fewer than 400 students. Some of those high schools enrolled fewer than 50 youngsters in grades 9-12.

My recommendations on sustaining small high schools in rural communities, based on that study, are directed at superintendents, though superintendents should be aware of the responsibilities that community members and policymakers also bear for the success of these schools.

• Decide to be small deliberately and not merely by default. Stop aspiring to be a large school.
This is the “vision thing.” Capitalize on the unique advantages of small size. You’ll find that reading up on small schools can help you imagine what it’s like to cultivate a school to take best advantage of small size, that many things distinguish such a vision from one that drives large schools. The list of such features can be lengthy: community engagement in curriculum; collegiality and professional development alternatives; scheduling (lose the bells, reshape classes and requirements); and assessment through portfolios and demonstrations.

• Adopt the perspective that the community is the reason for the school.
Rural schools are more sustainable if the district leadership generally gives priority to the local community, according to the superintendents we interviewed in our study. When the community is usually ignored, leaders can’t access the support rural communities want to give their schools. Lacking this perspective as well, district leadership becomes vulnerable to the forces of consolidation and closure, accepting arguments that communities are too sentimental about their schools.

At issue here is something momentous. For whom is the superintendent principally working—the local community, the state or the nation? The alternate commitments (or combinations) represent professional choices for public school leaders, and some professionals cannot commit to local places.

• Make the school useful to the community.
Too often, in some rural communities, you’ll hear a question—almost an accusation—like this, “What are they doing down there at the schoolhouse, anyhow?” Communities need to see their kids and teachers in action. This is what place-based pedagogy is all about. Some advocates go so far as to advise that the community be the curriculum. None of our superintendents went that far, nor do we, but it’s an idea worth pondering.

Schools can actually work to harm rural places, and often do. The worst thing a rural school can do, so far as its reputation with the community is concerned, is to act as a talent-export service. Rural communities rightly fear the loss of their young people to outmigration. This is a genuine dilemma in an age when conventional wisdom dictates postsecondary education for almost everyone. The issue can be resolved only by working closely with the community with the aim of being useful to it.

• Cultivate wide community participation in tough decisions about the system.
This advice proceeds from the preceding point about the dilemma of outmigration and need for schooling beyond high school. It stems from the reality that in many districts, professionals don’t want community involvement in the really tough decisions. And the superintendents who provided this advice were clearly aware of the difficulties involved.

Some endorsed the approach but said their communities were so divided that they judged such involvement as too dangerous. In fact, a community’s lack of readiness for this level of participation seemed, for some superintendents, to indicate a degree of community dysfunction. For others, where readiness was not an issue, the benefit of involving the community in tough decisions was that it strengthened support for the school.

• Cultivate caring, responsiveness and collaboration in the faculty.
Superintendents praised the dedication of faculty in their small rural high schools. In fact, the chances for developing these qualities are widely believed to be better in smaller systems than in larger ones. Observers believe this set of qualities is the core opportunity in smaller schools and districts, and it’s certainly part of being small on purpose. Again and again the superintendents we studied insisted on the need to realize this advantage. It required active nurturing, they suggested.

• Adapt to state policies in ways that further local purpose.
This is quite a trick. But it’s something that experienced rural superintendents have mastered. They turn challenges, such as unreasonable or misguided accountability demands, into opportunities to advance local purposes. Obviously, superintendents need to help to define those local purposes. Full engagement with the community is a definite plus.

• Work with others to influence state policy changes.
This point is like the previous one but has a wider field of action. Rural schools are closed because states adopt wildly misguided one-size-fits-all policies that do consistent damage in rural areas—for instance, by specifying minimum school sizes. These mistakes can be corrected only when superintendents join with others to change policy. Many superintendents are involved in such work, but too few rural superintendents seem to press these distinctly rural issues. One might point out, however, that school size is an issue common to both rural and urban leaders.

• Work with community members to establish a local endowment for the high school; starting small is a logical beginning.
Several superintendents mentioned this strategy and others endorsed the idea. The endowment both underwrites community support and expresses it. It represents, in palpable form, community engagement. Developing an endowment can serve many practical ends. Two strategic purposes define the importance of this suggestion: An endowment establishes a modicum of power as participation increases and as the bank balance rises, and it symbolizes the will of the community to sustain the school.

Is there a priority to these recommendations? From a research angle, no. What’s at issue here is a perspective that is fundamentally pro-community. A web of local commitments, contextual conditions and relationships is what sustains the small high schools that so many rural communities want and that so many need.

A Tough Job
A superintendent’s allegiance to local concerns is not so certain as it might seem.

Superintendents are at the pinnacle of the education profession, and the profession inculcates its own commitments. These professional commitments are often at odds with commitments to the ideal of the local community. This situation is not at all mysterious.

Consider the big-school model. The big school exists to cultivate rugged individuals, people who make their way to successful careers in Singapore, London and New York. Of course, few students (whether rural, suburban or urban) achieve this sort of life, but it’s the hidden ideal behind contemporary school success. Many of us don’t subscribe to this ideal, but it’s nonetheless prevalent in the American cultural scene, and the ideal probably shapes more of our actions than we care to admit.

When superintendents choose to commit themselves to being small on purpose and to act to support rural localities, they are acting against the grain of professional norms. The small school view, to some extent, sets devotion to community and a local common good above the cultivation of rugged individuals and the terms of idealized success. It’s definitely the road less traveled.

It’s wise to remember, nonetheless, that rural America is the home of rugged individualism, and that the common good, American style, is not likely to forgo the cultivation of rugged individualism. In the end, it’s a question of balance. Rugged individualism without common good looks a lot like barbarism—and surely we had enough of that in the 20th century.

Sustaining your small rural high school, then, connects to a host of great public issues. The choice actually commits a superintendent to developing a world view in which rural places actually have a more decent future.

Craig Howley is co-director of the research initiative of the Appalachian Collaborative Center for Research, Assessment and Instruction in Mathematics at Ohio University, 210A McCracken Hall, Athens, OH 45701. E-mail: howleyc@ohio.edu. Howley also is associate director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools.