Rural Education Matters
By Christopher O. Gaines
/School Administrator, October 2018
I GREW UP
in a small town of about 1,200 in southeast Missouri. The community was founded in the East Swamp in 1900 as a logging town, and for decades logging the cypress timber from the swamp was the economic driver of the town.
As the timber disappeared and the swamp was drained, rich soil gave rise to a new economy — farming. Between 1950 and 2010, the town’s population declined 37.6 percent, and that calculation does not include the families who lived in the farmhouses outside of town. The small farms we drove by as children are gone. Old, familiar landmarks have fallen into disrepair or no longer exist.
My parents grew up there, and I had many of the same teachers they did. A gymnasium built in the 1960s is still referred to as the “new gym.” Football was eliminated after the 1972 season when not enough eligible players showed up to make a team, and each year the senior class gets to farm the old 6-acre football complex to raise funds for a senior trip.
As it has been through the generations, the school is still the center of the community. It’s where everyone comes together to support kids and one another. Annual school carnivals, holiday productions and concerts all draw members of the community to the familiar stages.
The immense pride citizens have in their schools and the intensity of the decades-old rivalries with other small towns may surprise those who have not lived in a rural community. Fans from all generations become the cheering squad in the bleachers.
I began my teaching career in another small town a short commute from where I grew up. The school district administration consisted of the superintendent and one principal for K–12. In addition to being the only math teacher in a 7–12 building, I drove a school bus and coached the girls’ basketball team.
My first superintendency was in a district of about 1,000 students. Sometimes I drove the bus, sometimes I trimmed the weeds, and sometimes I served food in the cafeteria. In small districts, all employees wear many hats. Earlier this year I stopped by to visit a colleague in a rural district. Our conversation included his casual comment that the day before, he had been striping the lines on the playing field for a baseball game.
Whereas suburban districts like my own have fleets of buses to transport students to and from cocurricular activities, remote frontier districts — another level of rural — are challenged to provide student transportation over wide expanses of difficult terrain, sometimes relying on airplanes to get students to distant sporting events. In many rural communities, even if the schools provide internet, students may not have access at home, which can be a barrier to learning.
Yet through commitment and ingenuity, these districts still are able to provide an equitable education. As an example of their problem solving, some districts park Wi-Fi-enabled buses in rural areas in the evenings and on weekends so students can use the connection to do their homework.
Schools in rural districts are driven to make their community a better place for young people. Yet regardless of this fine quality, many, like me, will leave to find opportunity elsewhere.
My son is growing up in a suburban area where his options for out-of-school activities abound. He has opportunities to learn and explore things I could not have imagined as a kid in a small town. My experiences helped define me. His will define him.
Roughly one-third of AASA members work in rural school districts — facing unique challenges while providing high-quality education. A partnership between AASA and the Rural School and Community Trust is focused on strengthening rural communities and improving education in rural areas like the one I grew up in.
is AASA president for 2018–19. Twitter: @paddlingsupt