Mark Richardson, Public News Service (AZ)
COTTONWOOD, Ariz. — Out in Arizona’s wide-open spaces, dozens of rural school districts are struggling to serve their communities and often are challenged just to keep the doors open.
A recent report by The Rural School and Community Trust found rural schools in Arizona and across the country struggle with inadequate funding, changes to the communities they serve and providing educational opportunities for all of their students.
The report found Arizona’s rural school graduation rates are among the lowest in the country. Wes Brownfield, executive director of the Arizona Rural Schools Association, said the biggest struggle for many districts is to fund and maintain school facilities.
“If I’ve got a high school with 80 kids in it, first of all, I have to provide the same services as if I had 800 kids,” Brownfield said. “When a school building is built, yeah there’s money to build the building, but there’s never money included in preventive maintenance.”
He said other recurring problems include low teacher and staff salaries, transportation costs, and the “hollowing out” of living standards for middle-class rural families.
The report said about 50,000 of Arizona’s 1.1 million public- and charter-school students attend rural schools. Outside of the state’s three main cities, rural schools are found in Arizona’s pine forests, arid deserts and vast reservation lands.
Brownfield said the expansive distances can wreak havoc on school bus systems.
“Out here in the Rocky Mountain West, we also have rural and remote. And it’s those remote school districts who have to provide transportation to their students, more often than not, with a bus fleet that is old and suffers from a lack of preventive maintenance,” he said.
Brownfield said rural school administrators need to do a better job convincing local communities and state education officials of how valuable rural schools are to the state.
“Rural schools have to do a better job of communicating how vitally important the rural school is to a rural community,” Brownfield said. “It’s more than just the place where kids are educated. It’s often the cultural and emotional and social center of the community.”
The report found 23% of Arizona’s rural students live in poverty, compared with about 16% nationally. The graduation rate for Arizona’s rural students did improve to about 82% over the past five years, but is still below the national average of 89%.