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Realities of Being Rural

Faculty Members Doing Research on Challenges of Teaching in Rural Settings

Any given school day, Coeur d’Alene’s Ramsey Elementary School is buzzing. The classrooms are packed, the halls are teeming with activity and scores of educators are in place to help fill eager young minds with knowledge.

However, a 90-minute drive to Calder, a small town on the banks of the St. Joe River, reveals another world, a world where school districts are not only battling to provide a quality education to some of Idaho’s poorest communities, they’re fighting for survival.

The Avery School District, located about 25 miles southeast of St. Maries, operates one school in Calder. It has six students and two teachers.

Robert Vian, the district’s part-time superintendent, is concerned dwindling enrollment could mean the end for the district. The magic number is five students. If a district has fewer than that, “The state will close us down and all of the district’s property will go to one of our neighboring districts and our students would have to be taken care of by someone else.”

He is optimistic because the current student population is young, but he also wishes things were better.

“Unfortunately, we have a lot of parents who homeschool their kids because of the distances involved to get them here every day,” Vian said. “They’re trying to make a living.”

Avery is just one of two dozen school rural school districts University of Idaho researchers in Coeur d’Alene have studied over the last few years.

“Rural schools do a remarkable job, but they face an uphill battle,” said Kathy Canfield-Davis, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Department Chair with the College of Education in Coeur d’Alene. “They don’t have the resources like the more urban school districts have. Rural school districts are unique.”

In 2014, Canfield-Davis found that rural K-12 schools are dealing with geographic isolation, limited access to qualified faculty, declining economic bases and political disagreements over funding.

“Finances were at the top of the challenges,” Canfield-Davis said. “The socio-economic realities are that you have a lot of families living in poverty and these districts have a depressed economy. It means they have limited operational funds and most have to find additional funding through supplemental levies, which the communities do support.”

She interviewed 25 superintendents and 26 principals in Region I and Region 2 for her qualitative study about the greatest challenges they face as educators. One anonymous administrator said working in a rural school district is like ”Juggling beach balls in a hurricane while running in the mud.”

Here are some further results of her research:

  • Poor or declining infrastructure of schools.
  • An inability to recruit and retain educators.
  • A lack of resources for a growing population of special needs students.
  • Limited parental involvement.
  • Anti-government attitudes and fiscally conservative individuals.
  • Diminishing population, which means fewer students in the classroom and fewer dollars from the state. Idaho public schools are funding through tax dollars based on an enrollment forum.
  • Low aspirations for a college education.
  • A shortage of safety resources, including law enforcement officers and firefighters who must travel great distances to arrive at a school.
  • Lack of reliable Internet service.

There are some positives. Canfield-Davis found that rural schools are strongly supported by their communities overall and students receive a lot of individual attention with smaller class sizes. They also:

  • Are isolated from crime and other bad things.
  • Have less bureaucracy.

“It’s very hard for a kid to get lost,” she said. “Families are important. Also, kids can participate in extracurricular activities much easier than in more populated areas.”

Abe Wallin, a math specialist with the University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene’s Regional Math Center, recently finished his doctorate degree on supporting rural education. He did a case study with a focus on mathematics and how it’s taught in rural schools.

“The school had three math teachers who taught all of the classes from 6th grade through 12th,” Wallin said. “Each teacher also taught other subjects outside of math. The study created an opportunity for the teachers to have professional discussions of mathematics, which was a rarity.

“We used video technology to film them teaching and they were able to talk about different methods and topics. On one level it was research, but for them it was professional development in their content area, which normally would not occur in a small district.”

His work is expected to be published in scholarly journals later this year — a coup in higher education.

Lawmakers in Boise work annually to fund public education across the state, much of which has rural populations. Although Canfield-Davis conducted the study for academic research, she hopes policymakers can use her work to help solve the challenging issues.

“I would welcome them to come review what I found,” Canfield-Davis said. “My hope is that it could help rural communities who really need it.”

~ This story was originally published as sponsored content in the Coeur d’Alene Press. It was written by the newspaper’s director of sponsored content Marc Stewart and paid for by the University of Idaho.


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