Report Explores Unique Needs of Rural Michigan Schools

Tom McKee was an 11th grader in rural Michigan when a “build your own” teacher training program sold him a career in education.

Even so, McKee might not have imagined that he would one day go on to work as a superintendent, athletic director, and bus driver in rural Michigan — let alone hold those jobs simultaneously, as he has. done in his old job at Whitefish. Township community schools.

McKee, now superintendent of schools in the Rudyard area of ​​the Upper Peninsula, says he loves rural education for United Schools and the opportunity to impact children in his own community. But he says districts like his face challenges that haven’t been taken seriously enough by the state.

“Wearing these multiple hats is not appropriate,” he said. “But we do it in our rural communities because we have to survive.”

Dozens of rural superintendents echoed that sentiment in recent years in interviews with Michigan State University researchers. Rural schools face a unique set of challenges related to their geography, district leaders told the authors of a new report titled “Educational Opportunities and Community Development in Rural Michigan: A Roadmap for School Policy.” ‘State”.

The research team studied districts that the National Center for Education Statistics defines as “rural” or “urban.” These districts cover most of Michigan’s land area, but they are sparsely populated: there are 8 students per square mile in the average rural district, compared to 137 per square mile in the non-rural districts.

Large, sparsely populated neighborhoods create long and expensive bus lines. Attracting teachers to isolated places can be difficult. Access to medical services, mental health care providers, and high-speed internet can be hard to come by.

Meeting these challenges comes at a price. But Michigan is spending only a small amount to specifically support isolated rural schools through a $9 million program that the report calls “very weak, ill-calibrated, and inadequate recognition of the financial disadvantages faced by schools.” rural”.

“There’s nothing close to a rural policy agenda in this state, and that’s going to have to change,” said lead researcher David Arsen, professor of K-12 education policy and administration. “The whole policy debate has been heavily focused on cities,” he added.

State officials are touting the latest education budget, which included funding increases for all schools and specific increases for student mental health and for isolated districts. A federal infrastructure bill passed in 2021 will send at least $100 million to Michigan to connect 398,000 residents to the internet, including about a quarter of those who would be offline.

The new state budget includes funds to help school districts consolidate, which some say would help reduce costs for small, rural districts in particular. Some communities view school consolidations as a threat to local identity.

Despite the new investments, many superintendents said they needed more funds, particularly for transportation, especially given the current price of fuel, which is down from its June high but well above the prices of last year.

Rural districts spend an average of $200 more per student on transportation than non-rural districts, and the 25 rural districts with the highest transportation spending spent an average of $2,170 per student, nearly a quarter of their funding basic.

Michigan’s rural districts are typically represented by Republican lawmakers, many of whom have fought for additional funding for their schools. Yet the Michigan GOP, which has controlled the legislature for a decade, has largely focused its education agenda on school choice policies that primarily affect urban areas.

“I think the choice of school is good,” Arsen said. “It’s not particularly effective in areas where you have a low density of schools like rural Michigan.”

Steve Yoder, the GOP chairman for Michigan’s First Congressional District, which covers the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula, said his party should put more emphasis on supporting rural education.

“Generally, a lot of Republicans like to be on the conservative side and be fiscally responsible, but in a lot of these underserved communities, Republicans need to get the message across that we’re here to put money into these communities to hire teachers and getting those grades,” he said. “That’s something we have to work on.”

Growing up in several school districts in rural Maine, Jessica Drescher, a Stanford University doctoral candidate studying rural educational opportunities, saw firsthand the constraints faced by isolated districts.

In a nationwide study of rural districts, Drescher found that rural students overall performed slightly lower than their non-rural counterparts on standardized tests. But she found that the differences were much starker when she made comparisons within racial groups: rural white students fared significantly worse than non-rural white students, and so on across most categories. racial.

Rural students experience poverty at similar rates to urban students in Michigan, putting them at a significant disadvantage compared to their suburban peers. Poverty is correlated with various negative educational outcomes.

According to the report, policy makers need to take a closer look at the needs of rural areas if they are to make a difference for students.

Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, agrees.

“You don’t want a cookie cutter made for Brooklyn when you’re working in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” he said.

Arsen and his team of four researchers spent four years interviewing 25 rural superintendents. Their districts cover 88% of Michigan’s total area but serve less than one-third of the state’s students. Their schools are smaller, their staff is harder to recruit, and their students are more dispersed. While some rural districts share resources through countywide partnerships, many superintendents told researchers they struggled to offer specialized programs, such as AP classes, because of the high cost. of managing a classroom with only a handful of students.

Despite their low enrolment, rural schools are inextricably linked to their communities, according to the report. They are key drivers of local economies and often serve as central gathering places and sometimes even places for funeral services, according to the report.

“When the power went out, our school was open, because we had a generator, and people would come to sleep,” McKee said of his former district of Whitefish Township, which has 53 students.

Its current employer, Rudyard Area Schools, is larger, with approximately 650 students, and is a vital resource for the surrounding community. The district hosts dental clinics and is one of the few districts in the Upper Peninsula to have a school health center, which offers routine checkups and mental health care.

McKee often finds himself duplicating work because attracting and retaining staff is so difficult. The average teacher salary in the district is $41,000, in the bottom third of the state. Paying teachers more is difficult, he said, given the district’s transportation expenses of about $1,000 per student, which is in the top 3 percent in the state. And it’s hard to persuade potential employees to move to a remote area. McKee says more than two-thirds of its employees are graduates of Rudyard or a nearby district.

Arsen said lawmakers can help by prioritizing fairness, efficiency and local control when making policy decisions.

Among the report’s recommendations to the Legislative Assembly are:

  • Pay for an isolated education cost study and then cover those costs.
  • Encourage cooperation between rural communities to pool the resources needed to bring broadband to the region and make it more affordable and accessible to rural residents.
  • Adopt place-based education policies that specifically address the needs of rural communities.
  • Ensure that education policies are integrated into broader community development strategies.

“These rural schools are at the heart of communities,” he said. “These are places where people really care about children. We were impressed with this, but we were also impressed that it’s tough and they need extra help to serve the kids well. … With policy changes at hand, we could make a lot of progress.

Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit, covering K-12 schools and early childhood education. Contact Koby at [email protected].

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Join her at [email protected].

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