According to the National Center for Educational Statistics there are 14,076 school districts in the United States of which 7,873 of these are rural school districts, or 56 percent. Thirty one percent of all public schools are considered in a rural area. The Census Bureau defines rural as a place with less than 2,500 people. As school education budgets shrink and educational requirements of graduating students increase, these small schools face challenges that tend to be more unique than urban and suburban schools.
In 2007 the National Center for Educational Statistics published "Status of Education in Rural America." The report compared schools in urban, suburban, and rural areas of the U.S. It found that in 2004 rural schools had a 75 percent graduation rate compared to an urban school rate of 65 percent. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated recently that "rural schools face an interesting challenge: they do a better job graduating students from high school, but need help assuring they go on to college." This statement is a reflection of the NCES findings that college enrollment rates for 19- to 29-year-olds from rural areas are lower than those from suburban or urban areas.
Patton Springs is a small school district in West Texas. Of the 100 students enrolled in their K-12 school district, 80 percent are from a low-income family. This rural school is successfully addressing the challenge identified by Secretary Duncan. Last year, 100 percent of their graduates enrolled in college. Programs they offer to help students prepare for post-secondary options include having all students take an ACT prep course that is offered every other year. They also offer financial aid nights annually to help students and their parent fill out the often confusing FAFSA form.
Patton Springs students also have the ability to earn up to 30 hours of college credit by the time they graduate. These courses are taught at the school by their teachers. Many of the schools teachers meet the Texas Department of Education standards of needing to have achieved a masters degree plus 18 hours of graduate work to qualify as an instructor for these college courses. Fees to take these courses are covered by a combination of student fees, parent payments and the decision to cancel senior trips and use the funds toward these college credits. Some of these courses are also being taking online through a Virtual University offered through the Texas Department of Education.
The Madison-based Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance also researched the dilemma that rural schools are facing. Facing declining enrollment due to the lack of jobs in rural areas, these schools also face higher transportation costs due to their remoteness where some students face as much as a 100-mile round trip to school. The Alliance suggested possible solutions including collaboration between the districts to save costs such as teacher sharing. They also suggested using smaller K-8 grade districts with shorter travel times that feed into larger regional or residential high schools.
By the numbers, rural schools are currently successfully educating our students. New innovations in education and technology will need to be utilized to successfully meet future challenges. How these small districts embrace these changes will determine their future role and success in our education system.
Editor's note: Steve Patchin is the director of the Center for Pre-College Outreach at Michigan Technological University.