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Urbanite Duncan Continues Rural Outreach

By Michele McNeil — November 18, 2009 2 min read
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Education Secretary Arne Duncan, whose education experience is firmly planted in urban ground, is continuing to reach out to rural folks to figure out how the reforms he’s pushing will play out in the farther reaches of the country.

Nine rural superintendents, from Michigan, Texas, West Virginia, California, Mississippi, Kansas, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Arizona, gave him an earful during a more than hour-long chat with him yesterday.

The Rural Nine, first and foremost, said they were thrilled to get to hear straight from department officials about plans for turnaround schools and for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And, they were pleased they got to help educate Duncan on how schools work, and how reform might play out, in rural America.

As I talked with a few of them after their meetings, it was clear that one of their key messages was this: The four turnaround models the department is pushing won’t work for many rural school districts. Even the most flexible one, the transformation model, would be impossible for some that face tremendous recruiting challenges, since it calls for replacing the principal of a failing school.

“There’s just no way we can bring in a new principal,” said Beatriz Ramirez, who is both the superintendent and the principal of Raisin City School District in California, a K-8 one-school district serving 280 students in rural Fresno County. Instead, she said the focus for turnarounds in rural districts can be on professional development and using technology to bridge divides.

Tupelo Public School District Superintendent Randy R. Shaver said that, at a minimum, the department needs to focus on using incentives to recruit principals to underserved areas, including his district in rural Mississippi.

The Rural Nine also said they made clear that Duncan’s preference for awarding federal funding through competitive grants, over formulas, will put rural schools at a disadvantage.

“Many of us are the superintendents and also have other jobs too,” said Lyn Guy, the superintendent of Monroe County Schools in West Virginia, noting that many rural superintendents also are principals, or business officials. “We have our hands full.”

The $650 million Investing in Innovation, or i3, grants for school districts really aren’t even on the superintendents’ radar screens--even though there’s a specific competitive preference for projects that address the needs of rural schools.

Mark Bielang, the superintendent of the Paw Paw Public Schools, in southwestern Michigan, added: “Many of us simply do not have the capacity to spend all of this time applying for grants.”