Rural schools need help from state policymakers, study finds

Rural schools need help from state policymakers, study finds

(Tenn.) Policymakers must better equip rural schools to serve English learners, provide access to advanced coursework and attract teachers in order to negate common barriers districts in sparsely populated communities face, according to a new report.

About one in three Tennessee children attends a rural school, making up nearly 300,000 students statewide. Researchers from the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition–a coalition of civil rights and education advocacy organizations–said that while rural schools serve smaller numbers of students, those smaller school sizes can actually create distinct challenges for schools in obtaining adequate resources, hiring qualified educators or for serving specific student groups.

“Geography plays an essential role in a student’s academic outcomes and is often overlooked in the quest for school reform and improvement,” authors of the report wrote. “School administrators may experience difficulty in hiring teachers or in obtaining funding for social-emotional learning, but the solutions must be different for a school serving students in Memphis or another in Kingston. If Tennessee is going to ensure all students achieve, we must examine how a school’s urbanicity or rurality affects resources, educators and student success.”

Using data provided by the Tennessee Department of Education, researchers found a 57 percent increase in classified English learners in rural schools over the past six years–a steep increase for which they said schools were ill-equipped to handle.

Authors of the reported noted that a lack of funding combined with the sheer distance between schools created unique difficulties for district English learner programs. They found one district, for instance, that serves about 50 English learner students across a wide geographic space, yet receives funding for only two English Learner instructor positions.

Rural schools are often located far from a college or technical school, and struggle to offer dual-enrollment or industry courses, or even Advanced Placement classes where students can potentially earn college credit.

Many rural schools could have just one AP course offering, the study showed.

Part of the problem too, according to researchers, is that rural areas have a challenge getting teachers qualified to head up an AP or career technical course to want to come to live in those communities, as many can’t offer competitive wages compared to urban areas.

To address the shortage of teachers in rural schools, the report recommended that state lawmakers consider providing financial incentives such as loan forgiveness or undergraduate education scholarships for teacher candidates who agree to teach in areas with shortages of instructors, either by geography or content area.

The study also suggested including at least three credit hours to teacher preparation programs that focus on language acquisition and literacy development for English language learners, and placing one ELL coordinator in each regional education office to provide ongoing professional development and support to rural teachers, staff and administrators.

Researchers also called on legislators to re-examine the state’s education funding model–something many states have been working toward in recent years.

“Tennessee should revise the Basic Education Program and fund schools based on the unique needs of their students and programs,” authors wrote. “The funding formula can provide a flat rate of funding to all schools, and then add additional premiums for schools based on the number of low-income students, or those with a disability or learning English, or those attending rural schools.”

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