Wednesday, March 25, 2015

School District in Kansas exemplifies challenges faced by rural schools across the nation

Syracuse Unified School District in southwest Kansas is experiencing many of the changes and challenges faced in rural school districts across the country, Celia Llopis-Jepsen writes for The Topeka Capital-Journal. Syracuse's school district covers almost a thousand miles, and the bus travels for an hour and a half just to make four stops. The district includes about 550 students, which is the state's media enrollment.

Challenges include low enrollment, travel distance to school, teacher recruitment, housing shortages and changing demographics. The difficulties have spurred some to move to larger towns and cities. "When you talk about how many students in western Kansas that we educate—they're not staying here," Sally Cauble, a member of the Kansas State Board of Education, said. "They will be our leaders. We better have them educated."

Some students take advantage of the perks of attending a smaller school. For example, they have the opportunity to participate concurrently in a variety extracurricular activities, Llopis-Jepsen writes. The teachers carefully schedule practices so that enough students can participate in each one. Mallory Horton, a junior, is a cheerleader, a track and cross-country athlete and a member of the honors society and the academic quiz team. Lora Horton, Mallory's mother, said, "Being in a small school and having the opportunity to be able to be in different things—I feel like that has taught them how to multi-task and schedule."

Unfortunately, because of the recession, Kansas education funds per student had to be cut from $4,400 to $3,937 over a two year time period. Kenneth Bridges, superintendent in Syracuse, said, "What happens in Syracuse next is we lose programs—art, music—start charging fees for athletics. The next step is to eliminate teachers and increase class sizes." To prevent negative outcomes, the school is considering changing to a four-day week—saving an estimated $100,000 to $120,000 per year—and postponing textbook purchases as well as combining two bus routes into one.

Rural school districts "spend more per pupil, however, than towns do, have smaller student-teacher ratios and are less likely to have full-time superintendents," Llopis-Jepsen writes. The media student-teacher ratio in rural areas is 12:1, compared to 15:1 in towns, 17:1 in suburbs and 16:1 in cities, according to state data.

Another change is increasing diversity. "The English language learner challenge is going to get harder," said Shelly Billig, who leads rural research at the Denver-based education lab REL Central, Llopis-Jepsen writes. Many teachers in Syracuse have taken English as a second language courses on their own time with only partial reimbursement. "We do the best that we can," said Becky Clark, principal at Syracuse Elementary, "but still, we're missing a level of support." (Read more)

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