This post was co-written by Padmini Jambulapati, author of “A Portrait of School Improvement Grantees,” and Forrest Hinton, a research associate. Both authors attended primary and secondary schools in rural districts in the southeastern region of the United States.
Hilton Head Island rests just off that part of the Atlantic coast where South Carolina reaches down to touch the I-95 corridor of Georgia. Many seasoned travelers know this vacation destination as a relaxing place to get in some rounds of golf, plop a beach chair in the sand, and spend an evening watching the sun set over a meal of crab-stuffed jumbo shrimp. The scenery is mostly full of multi-acre resort properties and palatial beach houses, with an iconic red-and-white-striped lighthouse at the tip of it all. You can’t help but notice just how beautiful and luxurious the place is.
But about 22 miles inland, up Highway 278, the landscape noticeably changes from the comforts of a beach resort to the plowed fields and pine tree forests that characterize rural life in the state. Jasper County, SC is home to just over 23,000 people scattered over 656 square miles, translating to only 31.5 people living in each square mile of the sparse county. Life here is much slower and local businesses are few and far between. Sitting at the southern end of Jasper County, across from a big field and farm houses, is Hardeeville Middle/High School, a learning community nestled in a cove of pine.
Hardeeville Middle/High School is one of South Carolina’s lowest-performing schools. In the 2009-2010 school year, a whopping 56% of its students did not meet proficiency on the state’s math assessment, while 49% failed to meet the proficiency threshold on the ELA test. Poor academic performance has plagued Hardeeville for several years (like many other rural schools that find it difficult to recruit top-notch teachers and expose students to a wide array of cultural experiences). Yet, with 8 in 10 students receiving free-or-reduced lunch and a population that is overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, some may not find these lackluster academic results very surprising. Many schools across the nation with similar populations of underserved students – rural, urban, and suburban – perform just as dismally.
In a hopeful effort to fundamentally transform Hardeeville Middle/High into an academically successful school, the U.S. Department of Education awarded it a (projected) $1.7 million School Improvement Grant in 2010. With this grant money, the school is beginning to implement a hodgepodge of reform policies, including, replacing the previous principal, putting a robust teacher evaluation system in place, and offering instructors professional development to improve their practice. The School Improvement Grant program is a part of the No Child Left Behind law that received a game-changing $3.5 billion in funding as part of the federal stimulus bill in 2009.
Under the program, states receive a set amount of money, identify their poorest-performing schools, and solicit school turnaround proposals from local districts. Awards are made through a competitive process. The district has the option to select one of four prescribed improvement models for each of its low-performing schools, including, shutting down the school and sending its students elsewhere (closure), placing the school under charter or private management (restart), replacing a large majority of the faculty (turnaround), or implementing a series of major reform policies (transformation).
So far, most of the attention of the SIG program has gone towards low-performing schools in the nation’s troubled urban districts. However, with nearly 40% of the United States’ K-12 students attending school in rural areas or small towns, the program has been forced to pay attention to and adapt to the needs of rural communities.
For rural schools and urban schools alike, the federal government is targeting its $3.5 billion investment on the lowest five percent of performers. Rural schools typically receive less federal funding, due to funding formula inequities in other programs. And while SIG doesn’t correct for those inequities, it does direct a significant amount of money towards rural districts. Yet, even for the rural districts that had the capacity to fill out the lengthy SIG forms in a short period of time – often without professional grant writers – their reform options were very limited.
For essentially all rural schools, choosing a school improvement model was simply an illusion. The transformation model – which requires principal replacement and a slate of reforms – was the only practical option for these schools. It all boils down to the fact that rural schools, by their virtue or their curse, are located in relative isolation. The closure model isn’t a realistic option for most students in remote areas because it often involves closing the only middle or high school in a county. A lot of rural students already travel miles and miles to get to school, so closing a school in a rural area would likely exacerbate students’ already long and cumbersome bus rides. Likewise, rural schools typically have trouble attracting high-quality charter management organizations and often draw their teachers from very limited labor pools within their communities, making the staff replacement required by the turnaround model nearly impossible. Additionally, these schools often have far fewer community-based partnership opportunities and much less access to foundation funding compared to their urban counterparts. These challenges are thoroughly documented in SIG applications, where rural districts repeatedly describe an inability to attract and retain high-performing teachers to their communities.
The image below, from our newly released, interactive SIG Grantees map, shows the 18% of grantees/schools designated as “rural” by the National Center for Education Statistics. (To zoom into individual states and explore particular rural schools, you can access our map here. To view a map of all the SIG grantees, take a look at our related Charts You Can Trust, “A Portrait of School Improvement Grants”.)
(Access the map here)
As you can tell from the map, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming, Iowa, New Hampshire, and West Virginia are states where more than half of the schools are rural. And they are also states that exclusively chose the transformation model. Over 60,000 rural students across the country are expected to benefit from SIG in the next three years. Not surprisingly, more than 97% of their schools chose the transformation model, as indicated by the overwhelming number of blue dots on the map above.
Only three rural schools chose the turnaround model: West Shores High School (CA), Baboquivari High School (AZ), and Seligman High School (AZ). Leigh Schwartz, the principal at West Shores High School, near Salton City, California, told us in a phone interview that his school’s $3.7 million three-year SIG grant allowed him to offer financial incentives to attract and retain high-quality teachers and replace the less-effective ones. However, it also took him three and a half months to find 11 high-quality teachers, and he acknowledged that the greatest challenge will be to get them to stay. There was only one other rural school district that opted for a turnaround model other than transformation. Sussex County Public Schools in Virginia is the only rural district in the nation that will be implementing the restart model in two of its schools – Sussex Central Middle School and Ellen W. Chambliss Elementary – both in partnership with Edison Learning. No rural school district chose the closure model.
Rural schools – wherever they are – have much in common. Yet they are also very different: some are outliers in urban districts, while others are the sole school in their districts. Regardless of the reform models these low-performing schools chose, whether it was Western Shores’ turnaround model or Hardeeville Middle/High School’s much-more-common transformation model, the Obama administration is placing a costly bet that these interventions will fundamentally improve the education of their students.
Will this be successful? Can low-performing rural schools make big improvements without major human capital changes? We have several more years to wait to find out.