Thursday, July 13, 2017

Rural Schools

Commissioner Elia
The Rural Schools Conference this year was surprisingly quiet politically. Speakers would make a veiled reference to the election of 2016 and go no further, merely smirking or looking off into the distance. The Commissioner was clear in her displeasure about the planned budget, but that's as far as she went.

More surprising was the fairly widespread opinion that because the election shone a light on rural America, all of this will somehow be good for rural communities. I heard several times that this was an "opportunity" rather than the national death spiral the rest of us see.

This Pollyanna attitude became particularly surreal when one otherwise clever fellow remarked that climate change would be good for the northeast and might even allow NYS to reclaim the 10 million acres of farmland we've lost over the past few decades. The words "the new breadbasket" were used. PZ informs me that the northeast is simply too wet ever to be America's breadbasket and in its new, warmer climate will be better suited for growing okra, sorghum, or persimmon. Or collard greens.

Otherwise, the trip to Cooperstown was lovely and helped me to get into the rural mood (Dryden really is part of a micropolitan statistical area, and it's good to remind myself on the drive up what real rural looks like). One speaker, the national rural teacher of the year, was from a town in Arizona that was a four-hour drive from the nearest city. One presenter spoke of visiting a school of eight students in Montana where the kids were called in via cowbell whenever a wolverine appeared on the playground.  

So, yes, there's a part of the country we really don't see, or talk about, or (sometimes) fund. It's a part of the country where graduation rates are far higher than they are for urban districts (nationwide, over 80% of rural low-income students graduate), but where there are no local jobs for students once they achieve that goal. In 13 states, half the public schools are rural. In two states (Vermont and Maine), more than half of all students are enrolled in rural districts.

We think of rural communities as being set in stone, but one in nine rural students changes school districts in any given year, and in Nevada it's 17.3 percent. We think of rural communities as being poor and white, but one-quarter of rural students are students of color, and in New Mexico, it's 85.6 percent.*

It's still hard for me to see how any aspect of the 2016 election can move the needle for these kids and their communities, but it's certainly true that if we don't see you, we can't care about you. Maybe just the fact that we're talking about rural communities means that they will start to get the attention they deserve.

*All figures courtesy of my new friends at the Rural School and Community Trust.