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Published in Print: April 28, 2004, as Reporter's Notebook

Reporter's Notebook

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Rural ‘Renewal Zones’ Featured as Strategy To Improve Education

Improving the nation’s rural schools by using "education renewal zones" was one of the many ideas highlighted at a national conference on rural education.

The Rural School and Community Trust, a Washington-based group that works to improve rural education, held its annual meeting for grassroots school activists April 16-18 at the Arbor Day Farm Leid Lodge & Conference Center, about 50 miles south of Omaha. Rural educators and activists from more than 20 states gathered to exchange ideas on how they are working to save their small schools, build up rural communities, and make education better for the young people who live in them.

The idea of rural education renewal zones has taken hold in Missouri, said conference presenters who also noted that Arkansas, Louisiana, and other states are looking at the strategy.

Vicki Hobbs, a Rural Trust consultant based in Columbia, Mo., explained how the zones work: Three regional universities in Missouri were chosen by a panel of rural educators to work with schools in the renewal zones, drawing on the help of partners such as community colleges, the state distance-learning association, and the state’s education and higher education agencies.

The universities all had different strategies for their renewal zones, which were spread across different parts of the state and included varying numbers of K-12 schools.

As an example, Ms. Hobbs said that Southeast Missouri State University, in Cape Girardeau, has formed two zones, one in the Ozarks and another in the so-called Boot-heel region in the southeast portion of the state. The university offers more than 100 scholarships for future teachers, as well as workshops, and networking events for rural schools.

"They were bringing in teachers that had never participated in anything like this," Ms. Hobbs said of the university, which is planning to send more student-teachers and researchers into regions where many schools struggle financially and academically, she said.

That strategy could help the schools recruit teachers, said Doris T. Williams, the Henderson, N.C.-based director of capacity building for the Rural School and Community Trust. "Who knows? Maybe they’ll develop a passion for being in that kind of situation," she said.

While Missouri already has dozens of schools signed on to renewal-zone projects, Arkansas has a new law that will require similar programs there.

Arkansas lawmakers voted in January to retool the state’s network of education cooperatives through education renewal zones.

Doris T. Williams

State officials had been concerned about the effectiveness of the co-ops in helping struggling rural schools, and agreed that linking the co-ops with universities and other partners could help, Ms. Williams said. The work is scheduled to begin this summer.

The program, which was discussed at the conference, is aimed partly at satisfying a state supreme court order that requires Arkansas to spend more money and raise the quality of education for poor and minority students in rural areas.

In response to the ruling, the state is mandating the consolidation of 57 school districts with fewer than 350 students each. Lawmakers have added nearly $500 million a year to education funding, mainly for higher teacher salaries.

Rural Arkansas education leaders announced during a session at the conference that they plan to challenge the state-mandated school mergers in court. Though there had been speculation that a legal challenge was likely, rural educators had not previously committed to that step.

Jimmy Cunningham, the president of the Arkansas Rural Education Association, said his group plans to file a federal lawsuit in the coming weeks that will seek to stop the mergers. He believes the mergers are forcing rural school leaders to focus on administrative organization rather than on the tough educational and financial problems many of the districts face.

"There’s merit for a challenge," said Mr. Cunningham, the superintendent of the 311-student Plainview-Rover schools in west-central Arkansas, which under state law has laid plans to merge with two neighboring school systems on July 1. ("Arkansas School Merger Plans Take Shape," April 21, 2004.)

Arkansas activists told an audience of more than 100 people at a session here that they’ve been dismissed in the state’s news media as only looking out for their jobs, rather than the survival of their schools and communities.

"Those schools are there, those communities are there, and they should exist," said Jack Crumbley, the superintendent of the 800-student Earle schools in the Mississippi Delta region of Arkansas, which may be forced to take on a small neighboring district.

West Virginia small-school activists had encouraging words for their Arkansas counterparts. After a decade of grassroots organizing, parents believe they’re gaining ground on changing state policies that have forced hundreds of schools to close in the past 15 years.

In January, West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, a Democrat, declared that the state should stop closing rural schools.

Hard work for community schools pays off, said Paul Hamrick, a parent from Clarksburg, W.Va., and a fellow with Challenge West Virginia, a group based in Charleston that organizes parents to lobby to preserve smaller schools. "You learned you could break the code" of policymaking that sometimes keeps parents in the dark about decisions that affect them, he said.

—Alan Richard

Vol. 23, Issue 33, Page 16

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