Education

Frontier Schools Share Difficulties, Survival Secrets

By Diette Courrégé Casey — December 20, 2011 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Frontier schools, or modern versions of one-room schoolhouses, struggle financially because of low enrollment, but they manage to keep their doors open by operating multi-grade classrooms and making their buildings integral parts of the community, according to a new study.

The fall issue of The Rural Educator, the official journal of the National Rural Education Association, featured an article about this topic, “Challenges and Sustainability Practices of Frontier Schools in Montana.” The full research report is available on the Montana Small Schools Alliance Web site. The article in the journal won’t be available online for at least a couple of months.

The Montana Small Schools Alliance commissioned the study on frontier schools, which are more specifically defined as a school districts with 200 students or fewer in communities with five or fewer people per square mile. In Montana, 42 of its 56 counties fit that description.

Nationally, the percentage of elementary students in public schools with fewer than 200 students is highest in rural areas at 10.4 percent, and that’s at least three times more than any other geographic area, according to the study.

Researchers Claudette Morton, of the Montana Small Schools Alliance, and Hobart Harmon, an independent consultant, surveyed teachers, administrators and school board chairs in 141 frontier Montana school districts. They also held six meetings with community supporters of the schools from February 2009 through April 2010.

More than three-fourths of the surveyed districts enrolled 75 or fewer students, and nearly one-third were made mostly of low-income students. It’s interesting to note that 24 percent said they had no students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch, a federal program based on poverty, and that’s possibly because those schools did not offer a lunch program, according to the study. Many frontier schools don’t have a kitchen or cafeteria.

School officials said the top five challenges they faced included:
• low student enrollment (28.3 percent ranked it as most important);
• inadequate financial resources (9.4 percent ranked it as most important);
• unrealistic federal expectations (9.4 percent ranked it as most important);
• academically unmotivated students (4.7 percent ranked it as most important);
• mixed grade levels of students (4.7 percent ranked it as most important).

Most said low enrollment was a problem because fewer students translated into less funding, elimination of staff, and possible school closure or consolidation. Those who cited inadequate financial resources said a lack of money affected everything from the physical buildings to the district’s overall ability to provide programs for all students, and that unrealistic federal expectations elicited concerns about over-emphasis on testing and a general preference for local control.

The challenges noted least frequently were: student use of illegal drugs (2.5 percent); meeting teacher certification requirements (5.5 percent) and student use of alcohol (5.9 percent).

Researchers grouped the practices that helped keep these small schools alive into four categories: general operations, staffing, fiscal, and distance-learning technology. For general operations, 67.9 percent of school officials said operating multi-grade classrooms helped keep their schools open, while 41.9 percent said using school buildings for important community events did so. In terms of staffing, making special in-service opportunities available and creating partnerships with other districts were among the top practices.

Frontier schools formed consortia of districts to leverage purchasing power, and they sought bids and comparison pricing to stretch their dollars. Finally, rural districts used distance-learning technology to deliver professional development and provide enrichment opportunities for students.

“Educators and other residents live on the frontier because they identify with and want to contribute to this unique way of life, but increasingly they face challenges that attract little attention from those who could help provide meaningful solutions,” according to the study. “Frontier schools are an important segment of public education that deserve the urgent attention of policymakers, researchers, technical assistance providers and private foundations.”

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


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP