In the Sunday paper today, the AJC takes a look at rural schools in a well researched package
AJC reporter Jaime Sarrio spent time in Wilcox County and other rural school districts interviewing educators, officials and parents. She also extensively researched the subject, reviewing studies by state government and nonprofit experts. AJC data specialist Kelly Guckian gathered extensive data on test scores, remedial education and other measures of college readiness, then analyzed thousands of records to demonstrate the disparity between rural and non-rural schools. Sarrio used that analysis in reporting this story.
Among their discoveries: In 2010, 23 percent of Georgia’s rural students needed remedial courses, compared to 19.9 percent of non-rural students. Those figures were more pronounced in extremely rural districts, where 30 percent needed remedial courses compared to 15.8 percent in large suburban districts. On SAT exams this year, rural students scored about 50 points lower than their peers in non-rural districts, according to an AJC analysis. This gap was wider between extremely rural districts, where the average score was 1,369, and large suburban areas, 1,486.
A few years ago, I spent two weeks visiting rural districts. I met a lot of dedicated people. I also interviewed reform-minded school chiefs who were encountering resistance to their efforts to shake up the status quo. In some districts, I saw two or even three generations of families employed in the schools. That is not surprising when the district is one of the county’s biggest employers.
A stubborn challenge is recruiting good teachers in rural areas with few of the amenities that appeal to 28-year-olds. I have interviewed national researchers on the question of luring good teachers to rural districts. One strategy they recommended was helping districts grow their own workforces by identifying potential candidates who lived or grew up in the local community.
Those mature adults were not shocked by the conditions of the school or the circumstances of their students’ homes, so they brought neither pity nor fear with them into the classroom.
I know that Georgia lawmakers contend that charter schools will bring more options to rural schools, but I spoke to an official with a for-profit charter management firm who said it was unlikely his company would look beyond metro areas, in part because of the hurdles that all schools face in hiring teachers in remote areas. He was being funny, but I understood his point when he said, “Twenty-somethings have to be within 10 minutes of a Starbucks at all times.”
Take a look at this piece.
Dixie Edalgo and Allyson Reyer both graduated first in their class in Georgia public schools. Both now attend in-state public colleges.
But for these valedictorians, the road to college was dramatically different.
Reyer, 18, graduated from Sprayberry High in Cobb County with a 4.578 grade point average and 39 hours of college credit through advanced placement courses. In her first year at the University of Georgia, she’s already a sophomore.
Edalgo, 19, graduated from Wilcox High in the South Georgia town of Rochelle, where budget cuts forced a four-day week, advanced placement courses are not offered and an estimated two-thirds of students don’t have Internet access at home. She graduated with a 4.0 but seldom had homework, and is now struggling with math as a freshman at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, where a 2.0 — a low C average — is required for entry.
The paths of these top students illustrate the uneven preparation for college provided by Georgia schools. The challenges of rural districts have been a long-standing concern, but an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis focused on college readiness. It found that rural students are more likely to need remedial help in college and to score lower on the SAT, a predictor of college success.
Reyer’s Sprayberry is an academically average suburban high school with abundant resources, while Edalgo’s Wilcox is typical of schools, often in rural areas, where students have less access to rigorous academic tracks considered good preparation for college.
“Sometimes I wonder to myself how I would have done at a school with people like that, ” Edalgo said of valedictorians from schools like Sprayberry. “I would have had to push myself harder.”
Most agree that money and location play a role in the disparities between Georgia schools. The AJC analysis specifically shows:
About 5 percent of students took advanced placement exams in extremely rural areas, compared to more than 20 percent in large suburban districts.
Rural districts spend about $400 less than others per student. Spending doesn’t guarantee success, but rural superintendents say they can’t afford educational extras that are standard in suburban schools.
Teachers don’t have the same opportunities for training and development. Those in smaller, poorer districts often face more demands and professional isolation, a barrier to improvement.
College readiness is gaining fresh attention in part because of new policies making it harder for students to play catch-up after high school. Starting this past fall, students who need too much remedial help in reading, writing or math are not allowed to attend schools in the University System of Georgia. Students who need extensive remedial lessons are less likely to earn a degree.
Before the change, the state spent $55 million a year on remedial education.
Georgia has the nation’s third-largest rural enrollment and it’s among the poorest performing, according to the Rural School and Community Trust, a Washington nonprofit. While a few rural districts perform well, the study found overall Georgia’s rural students are among the lowest scorers on national exams and their graduation rate is the nation’s second-lowest, behind Louisiana.
The problem has statewide implications. Projections show about 60 percent of jobs by 2020 will require some education beyond high school. Now, 42 percent of Georgia’s adults have a college degree or certificate.
Taxpayer dollars from wealthier counties like Cobb are already used to subsidize rural districts with sparse local tax bases in an effort to even out inequities.
“The fabric of metro Atlanta’s economy is tightly interwoven with the fabric of rural Georgia’s economy, ” said Jeff Humphreys, director of the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth. “If a thread comes loose in one corner of rural Georgia, it will eventually unravel in metro Atlanta.”
The report includes a comparison on rural and non-rural schools. Among the comparisons:
Students from rural public school systems in the state averaged lower scores on the SAT test and tended to require more remedial coursework in college. The graduation rates in rural counties were higher than those in urban areas, but varied greatly from district to district.
Rural vs. Non-rural: How they compare by the numbers:
Average pupil spending: Rural: $8,308, Non-rural $8,728
Receiving free or reduced lunch: Rural 56.9%, Non-rural 57.7%
Taking advance placement tests: Rural 10.0% , Non-rural 17.2%
Graduation rate: Rural 72.6%, Non-Rural 67.0%
Average SAT score: Rural 1403, Non-Rural 1450
Needing college remedial courses: Rural 23.1%, Non-rural 19.9%
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog