Recommendations from the North Star State: Rural Administrators Speak Out

Article excerpt

Administrators in America's rural school districts are uniquely challenged to meet increased achievement expectations despite decreasing resources. Mandated reform initiatives, population decline, and the complex formulas used to distribute tax-based funding have disproportionately affected rural schools. In this mixed-methods study, researchers first surveyed K-12 administrators and then conducted focus groups across six regions in Minnesota to determine the nature of the challenges specific to rural administrators and to document their perceived needs for interventions, training, and policy changes. The study identified two categories of common concern: student achievement and fiscal management. Within the category of student achievement, administrators identified four areas of need for assistance: testing and adequate yearly progress, achievement for all, staff and professional development, and data analysis. Within the category of fiscal management, needs for assistance included balancing budgets and transportation) 'sparsi ty policy. Analysis of the data gathered indicates statewide implications for professional development and policy review.

Key words: Rural schools, rural school challenges, rural school funding, rural school administration, Minnesota rural schools.

Across the United States, approximately one third of all children attend rural schools (Bryant, 2007). In Minnesota, thouscinds of yellow buses lumber down country roads, through cornfields, wheat fields, and orchards, across prairies, over streams, under tall pines, and across vast snow-buried acres, to bring one third of the state's students to school (Johnson & Strange, 2007). Over the past two decades, administrators in Minnesota's rural school districts have been continuously faced with the inequities and challenges of trying to meet both their districts' educational goals and new state and federal educational mandates with consistently dwindling resources, and decreasing capacities for generation of financial support from their own towns and cities. In addition, since at least 1994, rural administrators have been juggling a steady stream of concurrent and consecutive state and national reform initiatives (Hargreaves & Goodson, 2006) including the intrusive No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.

Minnesota's rural schools have unique needs and circumstances that impact the education of their student populations. Supported by a grant from the Center for Rural Policy and Development to identify those issues that most affect the state's rural administrators. University of Minnesota -Duluth researchers gathered information from the state's administrators of rural public schools (Williams, Nierengarten, Riordan, Munson, & Corbett, 2009). The aim of this mixed methods study was not to add to the cries for more funding, but rather to identify possible levers that rural administrators may use to promote less disparity between country and city school children, and the opportunities they receive in schools. It was an attempt to give voice to administrators' perceptions of the needs of Minnesota's rural districts as distinct from those of urban districts, and to identify policies and procedures that currently present barricades specifically to rural districts as they attempt to balance budgets and address mandates.

Minnesota Rural District Challenges

Minnesota's rural school districts, as opposed to the state's urban and suburban districts, have been disproportionately affected by two factors in particular: population decline, and state and federally mandated reform efforts. Since 1995, as a result of legislation, indexed, inflation-adjusted PK-12 per pupil revenue (less building debt and special education expenses) in Minnesota has held relatively steady (Minnesota House Research Department, 2008). Increased achievement expectations, combined with rising expenses and without increased funds, have meant inevitable cuts to programs and staff state- wide. …

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