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December 09, 2016
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A vision for rural education

By Dr. Kenneth Hilton
Vision statements should be ambitious. Ours certainly is. Sullivan West envisions “a learning community committed to the continuous pursuit of excellence and equity, and dedicated to enriching the lives of all students.” “Excellence and equity… enriching the lives of all students”—those are tall orders, especially in light of the challenges and obstacles we face.

The first of those obstacles is money. Over the past three years, most rural schools in New York have seen major cuts in state aid, on which most rural districts depend heavily. Ours fell by $2.1 million. And when the state cuts its aid to schools, the burden gets shifted to the local taxpayers. The new state tax cap now makes this shift almost impossible. But even if it didn’t, the fact is that our taxpayers are pretty much “taxed out.”

The second obstacle is the large geographic size of rural districts. Sullivan West is spread out over 255 square miles. This requires a huge expenditure for student transportation. But beyond the financial costs are “opportunity costs.” Unlike suburban or urban districts, where late-afternoon bus runs are routine, we simply can’t afford them. Student participation in athletics, clubs, school plays, extra-help sessions, or other extra-curricular activities all suffer. Imagine the burden on a family where mom has to drive a one-hour round trip each day to pick up her son from play practice at the high school. Rural kids miss out on many of the school-based opportunities that suburban kids have.

A third obstacle is the small demographic size of rural districts. Sullivan West serves only 1200 students. Most of our neighboring districts are even smaller. Schools with small enrollments lack what economists call “economies of scale.” And these economies aren’t just financial, they’re programmatic. While many suburban high schools have rich curricular offerings, with 15 or more Advanced Placement (AP) courses, Sullivan West struggles to offer five or six such courses. Most small rural districts don’t have enough kids to offer even one AP course. Small enrollments limit course offerings, program options and learning opportunities.

So how can Sullivan West and other rural county schools hope to fulfill their ambitious visions in the face of such obstacles?

Fortunately for us, rural school districts have two major advantages that outweigh the obstacles. The first is their strong community base. Rural schools, far more than suburban or urban schools, are hubs of their communities. Multi-generational populations that characterize most rural communities create a unity of purpose and a civic loyalty that serve our schools well. In New York’s less-affluent rural school districts, property taxes, compared to average household incomes, are much higher than in suburban or urban districts—yet rural school budgets are more often approved by voters.

The second advantage is an outgrowth of the first. Rural schooling is personal schooling. Too many kids in suburban and urban schools are “anonymous.” Our students aren’t. As in the theme song of the old TV show “Cheers,” in small, rural schools “everybody knows your name.” And largely because of this dynamic, rural kids (like ours) are better educated. No wonder they’re better behaved, more mature, more self-disciplined and just plain “nicer” than most other kids.

There are trade-offs to life, and choices have consequences. We chose to live here in Sullivan County where our children breathe clean air, drink clean water, play outdoors and attend small rural schools. Yes, rural schools like Sullivan West have their limits and face some tough obstacles. Providing “excellence and equity” and achieving other ambitious visions that we have for our schools will not be easy. But if good teachers continue to find their ways to rural classrooms, I’ll bet that we’ll continue to make progress, even against the strong headwinds that are blowing our way.

[Dr. Kenneth Hilton is the outgoing superintendent of the Sullivan West Central School District. He is retiring on July 1.]