Five issues rural schools face and some solutions - AZEdNews
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Five issues rural schools face and some solutions

Pre-K Students At Ajo Unified School District During An Activity. Photo Courtesy Ajo Unified School District

Recruiting and retaining teachers or finding service providers for students with special needs is often more difficult for rural or small Arizona school districts than it is for metropolitan ones, but creative solutions are helping address these challenges.

“Rural schools have many of the same challenges as urban and suburban schools, but your solutions are different,” said Kristen Dikeman, an attorney with Hufford, Horstman, Mongini, Parnell & Tucker P.C. in Flagstaff, during a breakout session at the Law Conference sponsored by Arizona School Boards Association earlier this month.

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Kristen Dikeman

For example, Ajo Unified School District hired experienced educators from other countries, said Superintendent Dr. Bob Dooley, of the school district that serves about 450 students in the former copper mining town in Pima county about 43 miles from the U.S. border with Mexico.

Another might partner with a neighboring school district to ensure special education students receive certain kinds of  required services, said Ben Hufford, attorney and lead partner of Hufford, Horstman, Mongini, Parnell & Tucker P.C. at the event.

The key to these creative solutions is to make sure your schools’, students’ and community’s needs and interests are aligned and protected, Dikeman said.

Video by Angelica Miranda/AZEdNews: Snapshot of Arizona’s small and rural schools

Connecting with the community

Rural schools are often the lifeblood of their communities, but declining enrollment reduces the amount of state funding and the services they can provide for students, according to the Rural School and Community Trust’s report “Why rural matters.”

“We’ve got counties that are losing significant numbers of students, while the other counties – Maricopa, Pima – are growing,” Dikeman said.

Recently, Ajo Unified’s enrollment increased by about 50 students.

“We have an extra $135,000 this year,” Dr. Dooley said. “For a large district, $135,000 is pocket change. For us, that’s five or six teachers, or it will help us pay the increase we just received in utility bills by the corporation commission.”

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Ajo Unified School District students celebrate. Photo courtesy Ajo Unified

When people come to work in a small town or rural area they can often feel like outsiders, but what you do and how you do it makes you part of the community, Dr. Dooley said.

Dr. Dooley said he let Ajo residents know that, “I came to make their kids a better school.”

“It’s the old saying. It’s an old, old quote. ‘They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.’ Well, I care about the kids and the people of that town.” Dr. Dooley said.

Recruiting and retaining teachers

Recruiting and retaining teachers are the main challenges rural districts face, and it’s only getting more difficult.

“It’s hard to attract quality personnel at all levels if they’re not from around there or haven’t grown up in a small community,” Hufford said. People who move from an urban area to a rural area often experience culture shock and they have trouble adjusting.

In small communities a couple of families might be in charge, and if school leaders are on the ins or outs with them, that can impact teachers and staff, so it’s important to be professional, listen, adhere to school policies and focus on what’s best for students, Dikeman said.

While one rural school district might let students use technology to connect with a highly-qualified teacher in another part of the state, another might try to hire teachers from other states or other countries.

“There’s no long line waiting at my back door on Monday morning looking to come to work in Ajo Unified School District,” Dr. Dooley said.

For the past 12 years, the district has recruited teachers from South Africa, India, Jamaica and the Philippines.

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Some of Ajo Unified School District’s staff. Photo courtesy Ajo Unified

“One of the pluses of recruiting internationally is I can say I only want people with a master’s degree or with a master’s degree and a minor in special education,” Dr. Dooley said. “For the first time in my career as an administrator, I have a preponderance of special education and STEM teacher candidates.”

Before Ajo Unified hires any teacher, “we do an interview on Skype or FaceTime and bring kids in as part of the interview” and have the candidate do a 10-minute lesson, Dr. Dooley said.

“The community and the kids have had a lot of luck with our international teachers,” Dr. Dooley said. “Students who have gone on to ASU and U of A, they come back and tell us they’re glad they had a diverse population on our campus.”

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Finding services for special needs students

For rural and small school districts it’s often difficult to find service providers for students with special needs, that’s why it’s important to seek them out before the need arises, Dikeman said.

“It’s as simple as going through the phone book to find board certified behavior analysts within 200 miles of you, then just pick up the phone and say, “Hey, I’m from X school district and we don’t need your services yet, but in case we do would you be willing to come out to us?” Chances are they’re going to say yes,” Dikeman said.

Then update that list with those names throughout the school year, Dikeman said, so when you need them, you can call and ask if they’re willing to come out later that week. 

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Pre-K students at Ajo Unified School District during an activity. Photo courtesy Ajo Unified School District

Also, check with neighboring school districts to see if they know of and use someone that provides the services your students need.

“Maybe you can share them. There are options. You can split the cost. Work it out,” Dikeman said.

The county superintendent’s office and consortiums might also have the resources districts’ need.

What I see some of our smaller districts do is enter into intergovernmental agreements with neighboring districts, and some of the districts provide certain kinds of special ed services,” Hufford said.

Ajo Unified had difficulty finding psychologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech pathologists, Dr. Dooley said.

“I was at a rural schools conference several years ago in Flagstaff and met a lady whose firm does online speech,” Dr. Dooley said. “I was really scared and nervous about it, but it’s worked out. It’s $750 a day, which is still not cheap, but this lady from Iowa is bilingual and we have had excellent service.”

Ajo Unified also pays for a psychologist who drives in when the school needs him for $1,500 a day.

“It’s expensive – no doubt about it – but it’s not a choice. It’s important,” Dr. Dooley said.

Transportation, technology and building issues

Rural and small schools also face higher student transportation costs due to buses traveling longer distances over rougher roads, Dr. Dooley said.

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Ajo Unified School District Supt. Dr. Bob Dooley and staff. Photo courtesy Ajo Unified

Students may ride the bus an hour or more one-way to school, which has a profound impact on education, extracurricular programming and tutoring.

“We’ve got to have our kids safe. Transportation’s a big deal,” Dr. Dooley said.

The condition or gravel and dirt roads year-round, but especially when there’s rain or snow, increases the wear and tear on rural school buses, said Dikeman, who suggested talking to co-ops when it’s time to replace buses to save money.

After selling the Ajo High School cruise bus that was past its useful life, sports teams used a regular school bus until Dr. Dooley approached Freeport McMoRan for help. Freeport McMoRan granted the district $145,000 to put toward the purchase of a new cruise bus.

“It’s a yellow bus. When I made the deal to purchase the bus it was $160,000, but I was so excited because it had a big frame it was safe,” Dr. Dooley said.

Ajo, like many other school districts, applied for the grant for a new school bus from the state’s portion of the Volkswagen settlement.

“We just got a $120,000 bus and it only cost me $6,000,” Dr. Dooley said. “My goal – until I die – is to get new white buses for Ajo, because they’re five years old and have 100,000 miles on them because we go big distances, but that’s a very expensive process.”

Rural school administrators “on a daily basis are worried if the phones are going to work, and whether or not the internet is going to work,” Dikeman said.

“In the past 20 years we’ve gone from having a computer class to a computer in every classroom,” Dikeman said. “It’s a big change and it’s a fast change, and our infrastructure in rural areas isn’t necessarily keeping up with that.” Building partnerships with other neighboring districts can help, but also look for funding opportunities and grants to help with that, Dikeman said.