Education Reporter's Notebook

Rural Activists Note the Highs and Lows of School Advocacy

April 12, 2005 4 min read
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When rural education activists from several states gathered here this month, some celebrated their moves into the political mainstream, while others took advice on how to get there.

The Rural School and Community Trust’s annual working-group meeting serves as a spiritual-revival and policy-strategizing occasion each year for 100 or more grassroots champions of rural school from across the country.

This year’s gathering, held April 1-3 here in West Virginia’s quiet, hill-shrouded capital city, highlighted the maturity and success of some rural advocates’ work, even as their political battles continue.

Perhaps the best example was Challenge West Virginia, a nonprofit group that has fought against school consolidation and long school bus rides for rural students. The group’s executive director, Linda Martin, said the group has grown from one coordinator and a single county chapter in 1998 to two dozen county coordinators and 23 local chapters today.

Members of the group also have gone from challenging local school boards to appearing on statewide TV with the governor and state legislators, many of whom now support their causes. (“West Virginia Governor Cool to School Consolidation,” this issue.)

But Ms. Martin warned rural activists from other states that the work sometimes takes years and big investments of energy as well as time.

“Real reformers can’t be like morning glories,” she told an audience here. “We are growing into fine old oaks ourselves.”

The heightened role of Mississippi rural activists in state policy was made clear when some of them arrived late to the meeting so that they could stand with state lawmakers at a press conference back home April 1 to push for more K-12 funding.

Such an alliance of grassroots advocates and elected state officials “was not conceivable five years ago,” said Michael Sayer, a veteran activist and organizer who works for the Jackson, Miss.-based nonprofit group Southern Echo. “We’ve never seen this across race and class lines in Mississippi.”

Dale Query, the superintendent of the 927-student Flippin, Ark., school district, said the Rural School and Community Trust conference allowed emerging leaders to rub “elbows with people who have been where we need to go.” As the new president of the Arkansas Rural Education Association, he will help lead a battle in his state against the closing of many rural schools and districts.

The activists soaked up one another’s experiences: Some of them described their initial experiences in trying to influence state policy, while others spoke of how important the emerging national network of rural activists had become for them.

“If I didn’t have groups like this to associate with, I couldn’t keep going,” said Jackie Tipper, a representative of Save Alabama Small Schools, from Town Creek, Ala.

Young people at the meeting here also showed how they’re becoming more involved in rural education activism.

Students from small-town Wisconsin described during a session on youth activism how they are working with town leaders to provide a much-needed hangout for local young people: a skateboarding park.

Jason Tadlock, a teacher who brought students here from Webster High School in the lakeside resort town of Webster, Wis., said students are using the project to develop a “civics in action” course that will be offered starting in the fall. The class will focus on solving local issues.

Webster High sophomore Kristy Echeverria said students surveyed their community to find out which problems needed solving in the town, which in turn led them to propose the skateboarding park. Town leaders have agreed to provide the land for the project, Mr. Tadlock said.

Adult activists increasingly are bringing young people together to build strong leaders around rural issues.

“This is just a beginning,” said Julie Bartsch, the Bolton, Mass.-based consultant who has a contract to coordinate the youth organizing and education work for the Rural School and Community Trust.

Participants also heard about ways they can demonstrate how rural schools are raising student achievement.

John Covington, the superintendent of the 2,350-student Lowndes County, Ala., schools, said his district is raising expectations by renovating and replacing school buildings to produce some of the nicest structures in town.

The district also has tapped grants and private donations for programs that have helped boost achievement in a region best known for underachieving schools and often-dilapidated campuses in poor rural areas.

“If we continued to wait till the state stepped in to provide what it’s supposed to provide, we’d wait till hell froze over,” Mr. Covington said.

Charles Barron, the superintendent of the 782-student Shaw, Miss., schools in the Mississippi Delta, added that his district raised test scores by stressing student engagement, curriculum alignment, and nurturing relationships with students. Shaw High School, for example, has reached Level 4 in Mississippi’s school report card system, the second-highest category, based on end-of-course exams.

“Inspect what you expect,” Mr. Barron told an audience at the meeting.

In other words: “There’s good work going on,” said Rachel Tompkins, a native West Virginian and the president of the Arlington, Va.-based Rural School and Community Trust. “Work to celebrate and lift up.”

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