Rural Point Person at ED Talks Turnaround, Funds

By Mary Schulken — August 04, 2010 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The U.S Department of Education’s point person for rural education says he’s found a number of successful programs in rural schools around the country, and he’s working to help Washington identify and replicate them.

“Many rural schools do a good job of making school meaningful to students with place-based programs and career and technical programs,” said John White, who has served as deputy secretary for rural outreach since October.

White’s role is a new one for both him and the department. He joined the Education Department as press secretary in May 2009, then moved to rural outreach amid criticism the department was out of touch with rural schools. White served as chief communications officer for Prince George’s County Public Schools from 2004-2009.

The Rural Education blog wanted to know more about White, his priorities and his views on issues in Washington that affect rural schools, so we asked him. We’ve edited his answers only for brevity.

Q. What does a deputy secretary for rural outreach do?

A. Serves as a liaison to rural schools, colleges, researchers, and other stakeholders, and serves as their advocate within the department.

Q. Why did the Department of Education create that role?

A. To ensure communication and coordination regarding the needs of rural schools across programs within the department and to engage in mutually beneficial external communications with rural states and schools. Understanding that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work, Secretary Duncan is committed to providing a balanced education program that meets the different needs of schools throughout the nation. Since taking office last year, the secretary and his senior leadership team have traveled to all 50 states, visited rural schools, and spoken with rural school leaders, teachers, students, and parents to understand the differences and opportunities from place to place. The department continues soliciting and using feedback from rural school leaders in national policy development.

Q. What is your interest in and connection to rural education?

A. I grew up in Calvert County, Md., when the area had two high schools and many more farms and tobacco fields than schools. The experience of growing up in “the country” was very different than my last job working in Prince George’s County Public Schools, which serves approximately 130,000 students in more than 200 schools, with the University of Maryland in the same county and Washington, D.C. next door. I want to continually push decision-makers to set policies that reflect the differences between rural and urban challenges, and take advantage of the strengths of small schools and communities.

Q. What are your top concerns about America’s rural schools?

A. Access and opportunity for students to pursue and create new careers in their communities. Also, the expectations of adults for rural students, and the students’ expectations for building a career where they grow up. In extremely poor rural places, I have visited elementary and middle school classrooms where children can name the college they want to attend and the career they want to pursue. In some of these same places, school leaders say expectations change in high school because of factors outside of school. Education must be part of the solution for reversing the trend of young people leaving rural places, and economic development must be anchored by education— K-12, community colleges, trade schools, and other career training options—if we are to break the cycle of poverty and low expectations. Also, we must leverage technology to engage students and to provide new opportunities for teaching, learning, entrepreneurship, college, and career training.

Q. What are the key things you want to accomplish in this role?

A. Contribute information and feedback from rural people that leads to more support, resources and policies that can work for rural schools, while building upon the strengths of rural schools. Many rural schools are small, provide more personalized and one-on-one instruction than larger urban schools. Many rural schools are the center of community life, parents are involved, and community meetings can be organized quickly to make important decisions and get things done. I hope to play a role in identifying model programs that work for rural schools, so they can grow and be replicated.

Q. What concerns and issues come up most so far when you visit rural school districts?

A. Competitive grants, school turnaround models, and the need to use technology to overcome distance and increase access to college, career training, and teacher professional development. What is most interesting is that many of the same issues come up, but some school leaders in similar places have very different opinions about what is possible. I express those different opinions and situations to program leaders and during policy discussions within the department.

Q. Do the you think the current allocation formula for Title I funds that uses number weighting and state spending on education is equitable to rural schools and, if not, how should it be revised?

A. The answer isn’t a simple one. Changes to the formula are a complex matter that would have broad implications, which is why the department would work with Congress. Our goal is to have a balanced education plan that uses federal funds to help students in high-need schools regardless of their location.

Q. What policies would the Education Department support to help boost the ability of small, rural school districts to gain funding by competitive grants?

A. So far, the administration has included priority points for proposals that would address the needs of rural schools in competitive grants. Technical assistance and outreach are being provided, and we plan to make changes to the department’s 21 Comprehensive Technical Assistance Centers to provide expertise and capacity building for states and school districts throughout the country. Secretary Duncan also made a very strategic decision by hiring a director of philanthropic outreach to keep philanthropic organizations informed of opportunities to provide additional support for schools.

Q. What changes should be made in the four “blueprint’ transformation models to make them more workable for small, rural schools, particularly geographically isolated ones where charter schools aren’t likely and ones without the ability to easily recruit and replace teachers and administrators?

A. With $4 billion available to support this difficult but not impossible work, it would be a mistake to make changes to the Title I School Improvement Grants without trying to find strong leadership to turn around tragically low-performing schools that have shown no progress for several years. At the same time, we are proposing an investment of nearly $4 billion in the development, recruitment and retention of strong teachers and leaders as a strategy for increasing the pool of talent available to rural schools. Regarding charter schools, the administration is not mandating charter schools. Secretary Duncan believes we need more good schools and innovative options for students—more good traditional schools, successful charter schools in communities where it make sense, and other successful models.

Q. What policies are being considered by the Education Department to help direct a better supply teachers and principals to rural classrooms—and teachers who are better prepared for the unique challenges they face there?

A. The $3.9 billion proposed to support teachers and leaders within the administration’s blueprint for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is the largest request ever for ESEA funding for teachers and school leaders. This funding would support the development, recruitment and retention of strong teachers and leaders as a strategy for increasing the pool of talent available to rural schools. Funding would also support “grow-your-own” teacher preparation pipelines through partnerships with community colleges and schools of education in order to recruit and retain teachers and increase the number of young people and career-changers going into teaching and school leadership in rural communities. As you may know, teachers from rural communities tend to stay in and return to rural communities.

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