Brought to You By: A Small, Rural School

By Mary Schulken — June 29, 2010 2 min read
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On a not-quite-light school-day morning, a paved farm road in North Carolina is a study in a ritual of rural life. Children in knee jeans stand bunched at mailboxes, yawning and shifting feet, waiting for an orange bus to drive out of the mist. Across the road, an old man in the garden picks beans barefooted, his pant legs rolled up to fend off last night’s rain. At almost every house, one square frame of fluorescence lights a sleepy shadow inside making coffee and keeping an eye on the kids.

I offer that snapshot—one I got reacquainted with a few weeks ago leaving my mother’s house at daybreak—as a start to this new Education Week blog on rural education. I know that scene. I’ve lived it. I was one of those kids waiting for the bus. I grew up on a tobacco farm near Lake Waccamaw, N.C. I went to the same school for all 12 grades—the same school from which my father graduated. Most of my school days, my mother was down the hall teaching sixth grade. My graduating class numbered a whopping 35 students. I can still name them.

I share those personal notes because this blog is not just an academic exercise. Many of the experiences and issues at the center of rural education today are similar to forces I experienced growing up. I remain deeply tied to the people, the place, and those experiences.

My home county, Columbus, has fertile soil and a strong sense of community. But it can’t seem to shake its ranking on the wrong end of the highs and lows that measure a place’s fortunes: high poverty, high unemployment, high rates of chronic disease; low population, low income, low education rates. It’s geographically large, but has a sparse population. Transportation is disproportionately expensive. A limited tax base and low household incomes constrain resources available to support public schools.

My home county’s school district is racially and ethnically diverse—most rural schools are. That makes them rich, influential mixing bowls for the nation’s culture. But it also imposes special needs that cost money.

Plenty more issues await discussion, but let’s start the conversation here. Rural school districts have distinct needs that don’t always make it into the spotlight when national policies are developed and debated. That makes no sense. Nearly one-fifth of the nation’s public school students—9 million children and young adults—attend school districts classified as rural, according to the latest report by the Rural School and Community Trust.

The path that led me to is filled with ink and passion. I spent 24 years at The Daily Reflector, a small daily newspaper in Greenville, N.C., a city of 85,000 in the state’s rural coastal plain. As an education reporter, then as editorial writer and columnist, I focused hard on the needs of rural communities, their residents and their public schools. I then spent five years as an associate editor for The Charlotte Observer, writing editorials and columns and continuing to spotlight rural issues.

Expect this blog to be a place rural school needs and proposed policies get the air and light they demand. But I’ll need your help. What are the stories, needs and concerns of schools in your rural district? And, if you don’t live or teach in a rural school district—and didn’t grow up in one—what are you curious about? E-mail me at

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.