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May/June 2015

Being rural
By Theresa Kelly Gegen

Theresa Kelly Gegen is editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.

Jasper County Community Unit School District 1 in southeastern Illinois is the state’s largest school district, in area. It covers over 450 square miles. The district’s website notes that “JCCU#1 buses travel a distance farther than driving from New York to San Diego daily.” Compare that to four suburban Illinois school districts — in suburban Norridge, Kenilworth, Harwood Heights, and Broadview — each with territory that covers less than one square mile.

In the west central Illinois communities of Rushville and Beardstown, an influx of English Language Learners started with Spanish-speaking newcomers in the 1980s and continues today with French-speaking families from Africa. Finding qualified ELL teachers for a diverse population is a statewide concern. Retaining them in small and rural Illinois towns, where lifestyle and salary differ from cities suburbs, magnifies the difficulty for rural educators.

These school districts and hundreds more in rural Illinois face many of the same challenges as their urban and suburban counterparts. However, the breadth and depth of such challenges can depend on size, geography, and location. In addition, rural schools have unique issues that urban and suburban counterparts do not face.

Five years ago, three rural school superintendents — Mary Parker of Delavan CUSD 703, Gary DePatis, soon moving to Morrisonville , and Tami Roskamp of Schuyler-Industry CUSD 5 (the second-largest school district, by area, in Illinois) — began a conversation about the common challenges they faced. Realizing this topic deserved more than a conversation, they formed the Consortium of Rural Research Group (CRRG) to research and test their experiences and theories against survey data. Their goals were to foster collaborative statewide partnerships, build capacity within the state for small, rural schools, share innovative professional development and, ultimately, to give a voice to small and rural Illinois schools.

“There was research about what very large districts across the country were doing,” said DePatis. “There wasn’t much being said about small rural districts that have to deal with all the same regulations that everyone else has, as well as our own unique rural issues.”

CRRG’s efforts concentrated on issues “within the power of the districts to change.” Excluding state and federal funding issues allowed survey developers to focus on local issues.

Defining rural education

The Consortium and other researchers start by establishing what “rural” really means. It is a stark contrast to the popular perception of many who consider Illinois to be “Chicago, suburbs of Chicago, and everything else.”

This lighthearted, yet more on-point than some would care to admit, simplification demonstrates that defining rural is part of the story, and brings to light the difficulty of defining rural by population only. Depending on which criteria are used, the number of students in the United States who attend rural schools varies from 1.1 million to as many 11.6 million.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) categorizes school districts as rural, town, suburban, or urban (see Figure 1) based on proximity of actual school buildings to urban centers, as defined by the U.S. Census. Rural and town classifications are further subdivided into fringe, distant, or remote.

Such objective measures are statistically necessary and useful, but may not necessarily reflect a district’s true nature. In Sangamon County for example, Tri-City CUSD 1 in Buffalo, with 700 K-12 students on one campus, is classed as “Suburb, Midsize” due to its 15-mile proximity to Springfield. Nearby, Ball Chatham CUSD 5 has six campuses with more than 4,600 K-12 students, many with Springfield addresses. Although also in Sangamon County and 12 miles from Springfield, it is categorized as “Rural, Fringe.”

Within states, including Illinois, there are significant variations, not just between urban and rural communities, but also between different rural contexts and conditions. Regions within a state can differ considerably from the state average because demographic characteristics tend not to distribute evenly across a state but instead concentrate variously in specific communities.

As stated in a series of publications entitled Breaking New Ground in Rural Education, author Paul T. Hill and the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho, rural is not purely objective.

“Rural is more than simply an attribute of place. It is an attribute of people who do certain kinds of work, on farms and in extractive industries. It is also a set of attitudes, about tradition, close-knit community, a relaxed pace … These ways of being rural are not perfectly associated with the hard-data-based distinctions used by the Census Bureau, Office of Management and Budget, or NCES. People can be ‘rural’ in attitude and modes of employment even if they live in technically urban places … that contain undeveloped areas and small towns.”

Across the nation

Using NCES criteria, Illinois has 279,403 rural public education students, which ranks 13th in the nation. Compared to its total public school enrollment of 2.09 million, Illinois’ percentage of rural students is 13.4 percent, which is 37th in the nation. That second statistic tends to minimize the voice of the rural education community and its issues.

The 2013-2014 publication of Why Rural Matters: The Condition of Rural Education in the 50 States assigns each state a “Priority Rank” for its rural education situation (see Figure 2). The five gauges used are Importance, Student and Family Diversity, Socioeconomic Challenges, Educational Policy Context, and Educational Outcomes. Based on those gauges, the three “highest priority” states are Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina. Illinois ranks 27th.

“Illinois has one of the largest absolute rural student enrollments, but rural students make up only one in seven public school students in the state … [H] igher than average NAEP performance at Grade 8… Teacher salaries are below average and rural schools in Illinois rank near the bottom on state revenue per local dollar. More than one in four rural students in Illinois qualifies for free or reduced-priced lunches.”

Other than the low percentage of rural students, Illinois’ lower priority based on Why Rural Matters is for positive reasons: Illinois rural schools are comparatively successful in Socioeconomic Challenges and Educational Outcomes. Still, Illinois rural education needs are considered “critical” in areas such as percentage of rural IEP students (15.4 percent) and state revenue to schools per local dollar ($0.66). When considering dollars spent on transportation compared to instruction, Illinois ranks second. Only West Virginia spends relatively more on transportation.

The “big picture” of education reform focuses on urban and suburban schools. Rural communities must adapt models and mandates that do not necessarily fit rural education. Breaking New Ground explains why rural education is on reform’s “back burner.” Rural school districts are distant from major media markets. Domination of federal policy by urban concerns has led to concentration of federal program funds in metropolitan areas. Rural schools, despite growing more diverse, lack a “dramatic civil rights connection.” Rural education policy tends to be a state, rather than federal function, with states setting priorities based on federal policy and funding. Finally, and perhaps most importantly in Illinois, Breaking New Ground says, “A mismatch exists between the education-reform solutions favored by the dominant national philanthropies — for example, school choice and competition — and what is possible in low-density rural areas.”

Small and Rural Schools Survey

The Consortium of Rural Research Group created and distributed its initial Illinois Small and Rural Schools Survey in 2010 to 720 school superintendents who were members of the Illinois Association of Small and Rural Schools and whose districts had enrollments of less than 2,500 students.

The first survey asked five questions “within the power of the districts to change.”

  • Does the district offer online classes, dual credit, or distance learning courses?
  • Does the district use online professional development and social networking?
  • What are the top concerns for the district (other than financial concerns)?
  • Does the district have teachers instructing out of their content area?
  • Do teachers feel isolated and feel a need to share ideas and expertise with teachers from other districts?

Four responses to the third survey question of what was the top concern received more than five mentions from the 135 respondents. The most frequent concern was lack of curricular opportunities for students. The other three most common responses were problems finding and retaining quality staff, declining enrollments, and finance/budgeting/resources (even though the survey stated to avoid concerns with financing).

Responses to the fourth question about teachers teaching outside their content area pertained to districts with high schools and had 92 respondents. At the time, only seven districts had more than three teachers teaching outside their content area. By content area, the number of districts out of 92 with no teachers teaching outside their area was English (72), math (70), science (62), social science (66), and foreign language (78). The subject area with the most teachers teaching outside their content area was science with 29 followed by social science with 26, math with 22, English with 21, and foreign language with 12.

The final question asked if superintendents thought that teachers felt isolated in their districts and had a desire to network with other teachers. Eleven percent of superintendents responded that isolation of their staff and a lack of sharing with teachers from other districts was a problem.

Later surveys included additional questions regarding Common Core State Standards and access to technology. Over four years, the primary concerns of respondents to the Illinois Small and Rural Schools Survey have remained consistent:

  • Developing a first-rate curriculum;
  • Attracting and retaining quality teachers; and
  • Addressing declining enrollment.

Other notable concerns across survey responses include class size, parental involvement, and technology and internet access. Respondents were looking for answers to accommodate special education in small rural communities, as well as offering vocational education.

Notable, according to Parker, was rural district response regarding school reorganization options. Reorganization is often suggested as a solution to rural and small school challenges.

“Over the recent years there have been several attempts to push consolidation as a possible solution for educational funding and test scores lower than they would like to see,” she said. “Our data showed that very few districts are considering consolidations now or in the near future. A lack of incentives, cuts in transportation, and accumulated debt probably have had this impact. And communities [believe that they will] lose their identity [if] they lose their high schools.”

IASB’s position on school district consolidation is that school districts should not be forced into feasibility studies, but could do them of their own free will. Exploring School District Reorganization in Illinois: Navigating Your Options, by William H. Phillips, Scott L. Day, and Leonard R. Bogle, presents information for schools considering reorganization, as well as suggestions for developing educational cooperatives, attracting quality staff and redefining administrator services. Many of these are alternatives underway in Illinois’ rural schools, as indicated in the Illinois Small and Rural Schools Survey.

According to the survey authors, the importance of rural schools to communities they serve cannot be overlooked. The nature and spirit of a community reflect in its schools. Although a rural school district with a widely dispersed population can face problems transporting students over great distance, in such a locale the school is still the center of a region’s public and social activities and community involvement.

DePatis says, “Many times in a rural community the school district is the largest employer in the community. It is the social hub of activities and most likely the one place large enough to have a community event.”

“The school is the heartbeat of the town,” Parker said. “If the school closes, the town dies.”

The Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools offers this in its assessment of small and rural schools:

“Augmenting … community roles, a small school can play an integral role in addressing a rural community’s most pressing issues. For instance, students, teachers, and school leaders can be involved in planning and working toward sustainable local economies that embrace the best characteristics of place and people. Through school-based entrepreneurship, civic engagement, and meaningful collaboration, public education can become the economic linchpin of savvy rural development.”

CRRG’s 2014 survey results showed that rural and small schools were undertaking a range of innovative practices and employing cutting-edge technology. As a result, school districts were able to offer comprehensive learning experiences for students and professional development for teachers. Virtual instruction was helping school districts overcome typically rural challenges of low course enrollment, credit recovery, lack of program offerings or qualified teachers, and financial feasibility. Year 4 results also showed that respondents were adapting to the changing education environment in innovative ways, including 1-to-1 technology programs with laptops or tablets, Advanced Placement courses and/or dual-credit enrollment, alternative schedules, and flipped classrooms. Districts formed co-ops for special education and vocational education.

Attracting and retaining quality teachers remains a work in progress.

“I have about 40 families from Togo and Congo areas of Africa,” said Roskamp. “I know it is difficult for me to find teachers who can teach ELL, especially French. I have difficulty finding science, Title 1, and special education teachers. With the struggles I have had in finding candidates, I would think that teachers may be teaching out of their primary content area. But, other superintendents must do what I have done and just keep working to find someone and not be out of compliance.”

In consideration of addressing declining student enrollment, survey respondents reported addressing challenges unique to rural school districts, while retaining their inherent advantages.

“Rural schools have many advantages such as small class size, understanding individual student (and family) needs, which results in a better chance of helping individual needs,” said Parker. “Teachers get to know their students and parents to a level that benefits the educational process.”

The survey showed that rural schools offer unique opportunities, such as building greenhouses to run as a small business, which offers students cross-curricular scope. Several schools are co-opting with neighboring districts and working with local colleges. Offerings include Career and Technical Education clubs, Future Farmers of America chapters and entrepreneur clubs.

 “As a rural superintendent, I have to connect with my neighboring districts and share resources to be fiscally responsible,” said Roskamp. “We use transportation sharing and co-op vocational, special educational and extra-curricular opportunities. I even partner with my neighboring districts regarding professional development and guest speakers for students.”

Although the fourth Illinois Small and Rural Schools Survey may be the last, Parker, DePatis and Roskamp plan to continue working for small and rural schools. Believing that small schools best serve students in their districts, but that to continue being the best solution also involves change, CRRG hopes to continue in its efforts to investigate problems and facilitate change to provide solutions.

“In the climate of reduced funding for schools in general and small schools in particular,” Parker says, “Small schools need to remain competitive scholastically and financially if they are to remain viable.”  

For more information:

“Why Rural Matters 2013-2014: The Condition of Rural Education in the 50 States,” A report of the Rural School and Community Trust Policy Program:

“Breaking New Ground in Rural Education,” and associated publications:

Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools:

Additional resources
for education leaders:

Alliance for Excellence in Education:

Education Commission of the States:

National Research Center on Rural Education Support:

National Rural Education Association:

Rural School and Community Trust:

“Viability of rural, small schools can be defended,” by Greg Reynolds and Vicki Van Tuyle:

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