Tuesday, January 12, 2016

On rural public education, in of all places, "The [uber urban] Atlantic"

Rachel Martin reported from Fentress County, Tennessee, last week under the headline "Salvaging Education in Rural America."  The headline is an appropriate one as she takes up the many struggles facing K-12 public schools in rural America, especially those plagued by concentrated poverty.
When teachers, theorists, and pundits analyze America’s educational system, they usually focus on urban centers, but rural school systems make up more than half of the nation’s operating school districts, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Like many of their urban peers, children there fight to overcome scant funding, generational poverty, rampant malnutrition, and limited job prospects. 
* * *
Compared to students in urban or suburban schools, students in rural areas and small towns are less likely to attend college. Part of this is because of financial concerns. In Fentress County, close to 40 percent of children live in poverty.
The further details about Fentress County's economic and educational landscape are similarly sobering:
Another reason for their low college-attendance rates is that rural students come from places where higher education traditionally hasn’t been of much use. Previous generations could find good jobs in factories or agriculture, which is part of the reason why in Fentress County only 58 percent of adults have a high-school diploma. Just 8 percent have a bachelor’s degree—by some estimates, remove teachers from that calculation, and only 1 percent of adults have graduated college.
More demographic and economic information about Fentress County, population 17,855 and 98% white, is available here.  

Even if urban folks are aware of the depth of rural poverty, especially in persistent poverty places like Fentress County (and in my experience very few are, at least not in my corner of the ivory tower), I find they rarely consider the other implications of rurality, like material spatiality.  Martin explains:  
Rural students in Fentress County and elsewhere also have limited opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities (another factor that boosts a kid’s chances of graduating from high school and attending college); many of them simply live too far away to stay after school for practice or club meetings. One bus from York drives over an hour-and-a-half and then drops off a handful of kids at a car, which takes them the rest of the way home.
A friend of mine when I was growing up in rural Arkansas was in a similar situation.  Before and after a long bus ride to or from school, her mother transported a station wagon full of kids up a mountain to their homes.  This was always very memorable for me when I spent the night with her.  I had the luxury of living just outside the county seat and so my regular journey to and from school was just a few miles each way.  (See posts about the struggles of rural schools, including this one).   I have also written (here and here) about the impact on college admissions of the limited extracurricular opportunities available to rural kids.

I'm happy to see The Atlantic giving this issue attention.  It also reminds me of earlier posts, including this one about Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, in which she describes the ethos at a rural Tennessee school.  

I also found this description of a young man's daily commute from his home to the University of Tennessee, from a New York Times story about how corporate America's incursion into higher education services, including dining halls, is increasing the price of tertiary education.  Here's the lede from that story:
Before his 35-mile commute through Appalachian hills to classes here at the University of Tennessee, Michael Miceli eats a gigantic breakfast. It is his way of getting through the day without spending money on a campus lunch. 
Food deprivation is merely one trick Mr. Miceli uses to minimize his college debt, now creeping past $22,000. So the $300 bill he got from the university this semester — for food — sent him into a tailspin. 
“I was in near panic at the thought of having to borrow more money,” said Mr. Miceli, 23, a linguistics major.
And so the obstacles to higher education add up.

And that brings me back to The Atlantic story, which focuses on one public school in Fentress County:  Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute.  It's a novel institution in rural America in that it partners with a community college to offer a wider than usual (for rural schools) array of classes to "tiers" of students with different abilities.  The story is well worth a read to learn more about York Institute and the challenges associated with rural education.  Here's just a bit of history on the place:
The World War I hero Alvin C. York—who only had nine months of schooling—funded and built the institute because he wanted to prove Tennessee’s rural youth could accomplish anything given a proper education. In 1937, he donated the building, along with almost 400 acres, to the state. Its students have become politicians, business leaders, and educators. The astronaut Roger Crouch went there.
More recently, however, the state has turned it over to Fentress County to fund.

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