Realities of Rural School Reform

Article excerpt

The Idea of making high fliers out of students who are low academic achievers living in places that are considered educationally and culturally deprived - such as rural Appalachia - warms the hearts of those who see education as the road to economic well-being for the nation. However, the education reform rhetoric that sounds so good from afar must be sold from the local court-house steps and in the school auditorium to rural residents who distrust outsiders with big plans for making "deprived" people want to be "middle-class." Changing schools means changing the community and its culture. Change is not new in rural Appalachia, but the road to education reform is bumpy and curved.

All 55 counties in West Virginia are Appalachian counties. It is the second most rural state in the nation, with almost 64% of its population residing in rural areas. Uncharacteristic of the traditional stereo-type that equates rural with farming, no county in the states relies on agriculture as its primary industry.[1]

The state is rebounding from the economic realities of the 1980s when it lost 8% of its total population and more than 20% of its population aged 18 and younger. Tourism replaced coal mining as the state's largest industry, as the economy made a transition to more service-oriented jobs. High unemployment and the need to make local communities competitive in a global economy have driven major education reforms. The state's population has begun to increase. And many native residents who left in the 1980s now return to communities that have changed noticeably.

School Consolidation and

Education Reform

School consolidation has been the most visible and controversial educational change in Braxton County, West Virginia. In the fall of 1950, when Kenna Seal entered first grade at a two-room school in Cedar Creek, there were more than 100 schools situated throughout the county. Forty-five years later, only eight schools remain to serve the 2,700 students who live in Braxton County, all of whose 12,998 residents are classified as rural by the 1990 Census. Braxton County is one of 24 of the 55 county school districts in West Virginia that have only one high school. The new county high school was a result of consolidation efforts E years ago. And those efforts continue.

In many economically depressed communities of the state, equal access to educational opportunities often translates in to school consolidation. Declining student enrollment, coupled with a dwindling tax base, provides the fiscal incentive to close or merge schools. School leaders, who are held accountable for financing as well as for educational access and outcomes, are expected to endorse and lead reform efforts forts to build larger schools with more course offerings.

School consolidation in West Virginia received a major push in 1982 from a court case that became known as the "Recht decision." In his opinion stating that West Virginia's method of financing all aspects of public education was unconstitutional, Judge Arthur Recht strongly suggested that consolidation could prevent the state from wasting money on an outdated school system. Recht wrote that every consideration about education flows from a common denominator - money.[2]

In the spring of 1988 the West Virginia legislature passed 20 education-related bills, including a 173-page omnibus education reform bill enacted to upgrade the quality of education in the state. While welcoming the increased attention to education, several county school superintendents argued that statewide reform must considered the uniqueness of the state's sparse, rural school districts. Leaders in the legislature maintained that all of West Virginia was rural and that all districts shared the same problems.

County superintendents, however, insisted that major differences existed among the school districts, even if West Virginia was perceived as a "rural" state. Several of the superintendents, concerns were supported by a 1988 study, prepared for the Appalachian Regional Commission, that was the first major report in the nation to assess the consequences of school reform in small, rural schools. …