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Rural Educators Press Their Concerns

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Leaders of the two national groups representing rural schools have called in recent meetings for greater geographic equity in federal education aid and an end to "urban chauvinism" in school-related research.

At conferences held last month in Washington and Lake Placid, N.Y., the educators praised new initiatives by the Reagan Administration but said that more was needed.

"What we want understood is that we are not a minority," said Delores Helge, director of the National Rural and Small Schools Consortium, which met Oct. 13-17 in Washington.

Two-thirds of all schools and one-third of all students are in sparsely populated areas, she said, yet the problems of urban schools receive the lion's share of national attention.

Keigh Hubel, chairman of the research committee of the National Rural Education Association, which met in Lake Placid Oct. 16-21, said that more research was needed to determine how rural schools can overcome a growing list of financial and academic problems posed by their small size, scarce resources, and large distances from urban centers.

The nrea meeting brought together researchers in the field to discuss such problems, especially the hiring of classroom teachers and specialists. "There's a good deal of urban chauvinism in the research," Mr. Hubel said.

The group concluded, in particular, that further studies are needed to develop models for teacher-training and recruitment programs in rural areas.

E.D.'s Rural Initiative

Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, speaking at the nrea meeting, told rural educators that school improvement "comes internally" and that "no federal or state blueprint for excellence" exists.

But those attending the Washington conference expressed encouragement that a federal program begun last year by the Education Department would benefit their cause.

Under the department's "rural-education initiative," the office of vocational and adult education has begun coordinating all departmental programs addressing rural education. The office will complete a study of federal education spending, said John Pucciano, assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, "to see if there is equity" among rural and urban districts.

"There is a strong interest in the Administration to try to do something about rural development," said Mr. Pucciano, who spoke at the nrssc meeting.

Earlier this year, the office of educational research and improvement awarded $4 million in grants to the department's regional education laboratories to develop models for rural schools in areas such as staff development, improving student achievement, and community development.

In answer to a question from the audience, Mr. Bennett said he would support the continuation of the two-year grants depending on "how well the money is spent."

A broader initiative undertaken by the Administration--a White House task force charged with coordinating existing rural-development programs in all federal agencies--was profiled at the nrssc meeting by Alan Tracy, special assistant to President Reagan for agricultural trade and food.

Formed under the aegis of the White House Economic Policy Council, the task force has recommended that each federal agency develop its own rural-development "initiatives"--which might include education measures, Mr. Tracy said.

He cited the decision by the Agriculture Department's Extension Service to place more emphasis on precollegiate education this year.

Other speakers pointed to the positive attributes of rural and small schools, including an above-average level of community involvement.

They also noted the impact of recent technological advances, such as the satellite transmission of televised coursework, which have enabled small, isolated schools to engage in long-distance learning as a means of filling gaps in their curricula and teaching staffs.

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