ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Lost in the beauty
by Steve Webb
Steve Webb is superintendent at Goreville CUSD 1 and past president of the Illinois Association of School Administrators and the Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools.
Looking out through the window of my office from my desk, I can view the north side of Ferne Clyffe State Park, one of Illinois’ finest recreational areas for camping, rock climbing, rappelling, or simply relaxing. Surrounding our school in Goreville, on both the east and west, is the vast Shawnee National Forest, which encompasses over 415 square miles of pure wilderness. To the north/northeast, the beautiful man-made Lake of Egypt covers almost four square miles.
Without a doubt, the rural beauty that surrounds this school and community is breathtaking. However, beauty does not buy updated textbooks. Beauty cannot fix aged buses and crumbling facilities. Beauty alone certainly does not provide the number of children to justify some arbitrary number of students needed to become “efficient” in the eyes of state or federal bureaucracies. One might think that all children, no matter where they live, would be treated as the most precious resource the world could ever produce. One might even think that it would not matter how many “units of government” there are that house these children if we provided each and every student with the education they deserve.
Rural schools are at a disadvantage in this state due to the overreliance on property wealth and the continued dismantling of the state aid system that, if properly funded in accordance with the Education Funding Advisory Board’s recommendation, would help equalize and guarantee a certain amount of funding for all students. Clearly, Illinois is experiencing financial issues of its own making and now the state is looking at ways to correct the downward spiral. We are in an era of “doing more with less” and rural schools are suffering because we were already doing more with less before the state decided to cut student funding in 2011. We are professionals at making do.
I have presented the Rural Issues panel session at the Joint Annual Conference (Triple-I) in Chicago for the past three years and am constantly reminded of the fortitude and passion that our rural school leaders (board members, administrators, and teachers) have for the success of the children in their communities. Each year, I field questions and concerns regarding the unique needs of rural schools, and every year we share ideas and innovations to make the best of what we have.
These very concerns and the multitude of true “efficiencies” that rural schools have learned and initiated through adapting to adversity were brought to light in the Classrooms First Committee (forced consolidation proposal) discussions of 2011 and continue to reverberate throughout our state today. I and many others testified that we should never consider efficiency over quality. I submitted at that time and still maintain today that rural schools are the absolute best at providing quality education — and quality of life — with the most efficiency. Rural schools should be a model for all.
A great example is a neighboring school district located in the eastern part of Shawnee National Forest; Pope County Community Unit 1, the only school district in that county. The district enrolls a little more than 500 students K-12 with fewer than 160 students in the high school — a “small” school by most accounts. However, the district encompasses almost 400 square miles and on each of its seven routes there are children who ride a bus more than an hour one way to get to school. There are children that meet the bus (and by the way, the buses there are 7 to 20 years old) at 6:15 a.m. so that they can get to school, eat breakfast and be prepared to start classes by 8 a.m. There are no stoplights or interstates in Pope County, and only two state highways. There are very few businesses to generate any property wealth.
Pope County High School has one of the area’s best agriculture programs with a highly regarded Future Farmers of America (FFA) program. It also does not cut students who want to join extra-curricular activities — every child gets an opportunity to be involved in something. However, vocational courses, creative arts, and social connectedness to a quality of life are not high-stakes tested or provided as an “accountability model” that bureaucracies so endear. Pope County, along with rural schools throughout our state, is excellent at giving children a fighting chance at success in spite of where they happen to live and the lack of resources the state and nation provides them.
It is time that we step up to the challenges of the 21st Century and prove that, above all else, every child matters and every child deserves the same chance in life. It is time that we take education off the political agenda and fulfill our promises — our duty. Pope County is indeed beautiful – but that doesn’t pay the bills.
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