While 25 to 30 percent of U.S. children attend schools in rural areas, there is little research into how teachers in these schools are responding to the challenges of including students with disabilities in standards-based reform. In response to this concern, we identified 13 high-poverty, high-performing rural elementary schools in Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania that were also effective for students with disabilities. We conducted classroom observations and in-depth interviews. Our analyses of these data revealed four school-level characteristics of effective, low-income rural elementary schools. Finally, we present recommendations that principals and school improvement teams at the elementary level can use to better understand how to engage in continuous improvement of special education services.
Testing and holding schools accountable for student achievement are the dominant forces in today's schools. This movement toward greater public accountability for student performance has been growing for more than a decade and reached a peak with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001. NCLB and the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) clearly mandate that students with disabilities are to be included in current standardsbased reform policies that aim to increase overall student achievement and close the achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students groups. Although a substantial body of research is emerging on how large high-poverty urban and suburban schools are addressing these requirements and despite the fact that in 2001-02 school year rural districts comprised 25 percent of all school districts in the country (GAO, 2004), there is little research into how high-poverty rural schools are responding to performance based accountability reform. With an estimated 25 to 30 percent of U.S. school children attending schools in rural areas (Beeson & Strange, 2003; Reeves, 2003), examining policies and practices that support the learning of all students is critical in evaluating the overall effects of these reforms.
In this paper we present the findings of a five-year research study to identify the characteristics of rural elementary schools that are achieving better than expected results for students with disabilities on state assessments. In addition, we present recommendations for incorporating these characteristics into school improvement planning.
Accountability Reform and Rural Schools
Approximately 65% of rural schools receive Tide 1 funds. On average, rural schools and districts have fewer students than non-rural schools and districts; are more likely to be geographically isolated, and may, for example, be located in mountainous areas and on small islands. In addition, rural districts may be surrounded by difficult terrain, few roads, and may have extreme weather conditions. Rural districts also tend to comprise smaller number of schools than urban or suburban districts and also face declining student enrollments, which could result in staff reductions and school closures.
In a recent study conducted in response to Congressional concerns relating to the implementation of NCLB in rural schools, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) found that rural districts faced "Some challenges in meeting NCLB provisions to a greater extent than non-rural districts" (GAO, 2004, p.2). Rural districts reported problems related to:
* Meeting NCLB student proficiency goals and in particular meeting the needs of economically disadvantaged students who live in communities that lack resources such as libraries and computers;
* Releasing teachers and administrators for professional development opportunities. This is exacerbated in small schools and districts because they do not have sufficient personnel or substitute teachers to cover for absent staff.
* Recruiting, retaining and training highly qualified educators. …