During my 11 years as a classroom teacher, I have learned that many things shape the learning opportunities available to a child. These factors can range from the abilities of the classroom teacher, to the climate of the school, to the leadership and vision of administration. We rightfully spend a lot of time discussing how to ensure our children receive the very best in all of these areas. However, last week I encountered one factor we don’t talk about nearly enough, something that can make a more profound difference for children than all others. What is this difference? 23 miles.
Last week, I had the privilege to visit two rural school districts in central Pennsylvania that are separated by only 23 miles. At first glance, these districts have a lot in common. In both instances, the schools are being led by innovative and talented leaders that are maximizing district resources to create well-rounded learning environments for all students. Both districts also had strong cultures where both students and the community prioritize education and care deeply about their schools. And in both districts, I observed talented, dedicated teachers that are creating engaging and enriching learning opportunities for students that are college and career ready for the 21st century. But in spite of these similarities, there were some key differences, and they resulted almost entirely from that small span of 23 miles.
In some cases, the differences were apparent to even a casual observer. In the larger district, I saw some of the most advanced and well-equipped career and technical education (CTE) programs I have ever seen, each directed by master teachers. In the smaller district, high school CTE opportunities were practically absent unless a student wanted to ride a bus an additional hour to a CTE facility shared by several neighboring districts. In fact, the best equipped CTE room in the high school was out of use because of the district’s inability to attract a family and consumer science teacher. The high school’s library also remains underutilized after the school was unable to replace the departed librarian. Meanwhile, in the larger school district, over 400 students this year have taken advantage of extended library hours before and after school.
Other important differences in educational opportunity are less apparent but equally important. In the larger district, high school students are presented with a wide range of opportunities to take dual enrollment courses, with some students concurrently earning diplomas and associate’s degrees. In the smaller district, dual enrollment courses are not an option, and only 2 AP courses are offered. Teachers are going to great lengths to offer these courses; the AP Calculus teacher actually teaches seven unique preps each day, accounting for the entire math curriculum at the high school. In fact, most teachers in the smaller district are teaching four or more preps, with many teachers holding dual certifications to cover course needs, such as the teacher who teaches geometry in the morning and geography in the afternoon. These high demands on teachers are contributing to significant teacher turnover, as science teachers at the high school leave after an average of 3-5 years and fine arts teachers depart after an average of 2 years. This problem is further complicated by a starting teacher salary of $26,500 per year, while starting teachers in the larger district earn $42,000 per year. Not surprisingly, this district has limited teacher turnover and fewer challenges filling vacancies.
Trying to unwrap lessons learned from these two visits is complicated but necessary. The default answer for rural challenges is often to consolidate districts, but doing so in this instance would create even more problems. In some cases, students in the smaller district are already riding 90 minutes on the bus to and from school each day, and consolidation would make that ride even longer. Additionally, the school building in the smaller district is literally the heartbeat of the community. The school district is the largest employer, and the pride the community places in the school is readily apparent as you walk halls lined with pictures of graduating classes stretching back nearly 75 years. An increase in available funds would obviously help the smaller district, and that is why programs like the Rural Education Achievement Program are so essential. The challenges of rural education require more than funding equality; they demand equity in the truest sense of the word.
While finding the perfect solution to the inequalities in resources for rural schools is complex, finding the will to work toward answers should not be difficult. In central Pennsylvania, I saw a situation where great teachers and great students faced drastically divergent experiences, and the central reason was a distance of only 23 miles. For a great nation, that’s a small distance to cover to ensure we are providing equal opportunities for all our children.