Friday, June 15, 2012

Pulling out all the stops to save a rural school (Part IX): Marketing the school

I have written frequently over the past year about the struggle against consolidation among the schools in my home county and region.  (Read more here, here and here).  Recently, I became aware of yet another aspect of the situation:  the effort by rural schools to attract students away from other schools.  I laughed out loud when I saw over Memorial Day week-end the billboard above, a few miles south of Harrison, Arkansas, and about 17 miles north of Jasper, Arkansas, the county seat of Newton County.  My mom, who works at the school as non certified personnel, told me that schools in Arkansas are now free to enroll students from outside their district's territory.  I am familiar with school choice, of course, but I had never contemplated its application in the highly rural context, in which students are typically riding buses great distances to get to the nearest school.  It seems very unlikely under these circumstances that families would send their children even greater distances to get to a different and presumably better school.  Among other things, how would they get their kids to the more distant schools when buses presumably do not serve areas beyond the district territory?

A May 9, 2012 story in the Newton County Times provides some details about Arkansas's school choice program.  This particular story indicates that the much smaller Deer/Mt. Judea district is also accepting applications for school choice for 2012-2013. Here's an excerpt: 
Before a student may attend a school in a nonresident district, the student's parent or guardian must submit an application on the form approved by and provided by the [Arkansas] Department [of Education] to the nonresident district.  The application must be postmarked no later than July 1, 2012.
Students applying from districts that are in "academic distress" need not meet the July 1, 2012 deadline.

While the Deer/Mt. Judea district is not in academic distress, it is in what might be called numerical distress.  That is, the district's enrollment has for a few years now been hovering at or below the minimum required to prevent consolidation under Arkansas law.  Indeed, recent reports indicate that its consolidation with the Jasper School District is imminent.  (Read more  here).  If, however, Deer/Mt. Judea could attract students from neighboring districts, it might bolster its enrollment above 350 and thus maintain its independence.

While the Mt. Judea school in Sept. 2010 touted a welding certification program (the only one in the state!), its offerings probably cannot compete well with neighboring district, including Jasper.  A school district like Jasper is likely to have more to offer students from neighboring districts like Deer/Mt. Judea, rather than vice versa.  (On the other hand, I would be surprised if students from a larger and more affluent neighboring district like that in Harrison would choose to attend Jasper).  I have written a great deal about the Jasper School District (here, here and here, for example), which includes campuses at Kingston and Oark.  It is a far-flung district.  Lately, however, I've written of the school's efforts to attract grants and partners that enable it to offer special programs.  For example, this post discussed the district's efforts to secure a grant that would permit it to offer a criminal justice course.

More recently, the Newton County Times has been full of news about a $500,000 Coordinated Health School Grant the district is seeking from the Arkansas Dept. of Education.  The funds, to be paid over five years, would be used to establish a school health center.  Here's the lede from the May 16, 2012 story about the "wellness center":
North Arkansas Regional Medical Center [NARMC] in Harrison has agreed to be the medical provider for a proposed wellness center at Jasper School campus. The announcement was made during the regular monthly meeting of the Jasper Board of Education Thursday night, May 10.
***
If the grant is awarded, the hospital will provide a physician and and an advanced practical nurse [APN] at the wellness center.  The center will serve students, staff and the community and will be able to partner with other health care providers for dental, vision and mental health services.  
The Jasper District had been assured it will receive the grant if the school found a provider by May 11.  Subsequent issues of the Newton County Times report that the Arkansas School Based Health Center Team from the State Dept. of Education visited the school on May 18, 2012 to discuss further details of the grant.  About 30 health professionals, school faculty and staff, parents, students and members of the community attended that meeting.

One Deputy Superintendent provided a "statistical view" of the district, which covers 654 square miles:  
We have 897 kids currently, plus 43 pre-school kids, 180 staff members and three communities all combined that have limited access to any health care at all. 
The president of the Newton County Ministerial Association similarly highlighted county demography:
We live in a demographic situation ... that is challenging to the educational system.  Establishing the Center would be an opportunity for the health and welfare of our students because many of them, if you don't come, will not have access to help.  It's just that simple. 
The Jasper elementary school principal explained that the district currently "take[s] kids to Marshall to see a dentist because that is where the nearest dentist is who will accept them.  Children are also taken to Harrison for vision care.  There is a good relationship with the [NARMC] medical clinic in Jasper, but there is a need for better access."  Several parents who spoke at the meeting noted that "it can take up to two hours to get into the doctor or APN at the NARMC clinic in Jasper.  The school nurse at the very remote Oark campus said that parents often "don't have the gas or a vehicle to come get their [sick] kids and [the kids] don't get seen" by a medical professional.  

The Center would be sited in the so-called "Nutter house," on the edge of the Jasper School campus, and an initial $150,000 transfer from the grant would be used to renovate the house and convert it for health care provision.

N.B. The June 13, 2012 issue of the newspaper reports that the Jasper School District has received the grant and will be hiring someone to run the clinic.  

In other news, the "Jasper School District is providing free meals for children in its free feeding program though out the summer."  About 130 children participated in the program during its first week.  What the story does not mention is that the funding for this program is presumably directly from the U.S.D.A.  Read more here.

Also, the May 23, 2012 edition reports that U.S. News and World Report has awarded "bronze medals" to Deer High School and Jasper High School.  The publication reviewed 21,776 public high schools in the U.S., and 81 Arkansas schools made the rankings.  Among other metrics noted, Jasper's student/teacher ration was 10:1, while that for Deer High School was 5:1.  "The magazine also reviewed the composition of the schools' student bodies as well as their test scores."

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