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.
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.”
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.