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Rural school districts face mounting challenges

School buses lined up outside New Rockford-Sheyenne School.
Jill Louters, Superintendent
School buses lined up outside New Rockford-Sheyenne School.

Superintendents of rural schools nationwide report growing friction within their communities.

Across the country, administrators of rural school districts are struggling to meet the evolving challenges of those districts – and the students they serve.

Last year, school superintendents from across the country formed a rural education cohort. The cohort connects 25 superintendents in the American Association of School Administrators, the School Superintendents Association – and they represent rural districts from across the country.

Jill Louters is Superintendent of New Rockford-Sheyenne School District in North Dakota. She says rural districts have been up against challenges for years – including limited access to coursework, medical care, food and employment opportunities. Then the pandemic hit, and those challenges began reaching up through students into administrations – and as a result, putting a strain on entire communities.

Louters says most people love the idea of their children attending school in a smaller district, because it offers connection and oftentimes a more customized learning environment. But she says there is often resistance within communities when it comes to advancing those environments.

“I believe we’re in a time and place in history where it’s become really challenging for a number of reasons to bring people together around necessary conversations regarding the future of education – the future of our student’s needs," Louters says. "And I think those conversations – the ability to have collective discourse and disagreement, which is important to honor, around the issues is tearing at the fabric of our rural communities.”

Louters co-leads the cohort with Todd Dugan. Dugan is Superintendent at Community Unit District #8 in Bunker Hill, Illinois. He says a lot of times, the futures of education in rural districts is at odds with their pasts.

“Some of the things that we face, you know – we’re trying to move the future of education for the kids. And then I cringe when I hear, ‘well, back when I was in school,’ and it’s like this desire to maintain tradition. Which, that’s good, that’s great. You will see in rural communities when you talk about one thing they love, it’s their traditions. And when you look at what embodies the traditions of a rural community, it’s the public school.”

Louters says this friction within rural communities may have far reaching consequences. She says though relationships and camaraderie are valued in these spaces, it’s getting harder to make progress while maintaining those qualities. She says decisions are often made at the school board table that benefit adults or constituency groups instead of students – and it’s contributing to more than just teacher shortages.

“That’s an issue that’s resulting in, in North Dakota, educational leaders – be they principals or superintendents – who are leaving. This isn’t a conversation about teachers, teacher shortages, school staff shortages – it’s the leaders as well, because they are being challenged to navigate some very difficult circumstances, and they are individuals who are also choosing to live in and work in rural communities where these tensions are at play.”

And a retention problem in administration for rural districts could be a larger issue than most people realize. According to an equity report done by the School Superintendents Association, 72 percent of the United States is rural, with 53 percent of all school districts qualifying as “rural.” One in five students nationwide attend a rural school. And an average of only 17 percent of state funding goes to rural school districts, despite rising costs.

Dugan says he hopes that while many may disagree with how to address issues facing rural districts, most would agree that students deserve to have those challenges identified.

“There’s this perception that the rural areas are behind the urban areas, and that’s just a perception. When you look at achievement, you have urban areas, and then you have rural students that actually outperform urban. And the only group of students the rural students underperform is the suburban students.”

Dugan says some of the narrative on rural students needs to be transposed – so learners in all districts can take advantage of opportunities.

The Advancing Rural Education Cohort meets monthly throughout the academic year.