Georgia has the third-highest rural student population in the country, according to a report released by the Rural School and Community Trust in November.
More than 500,000 Georgia students attend rural schools, making up more than one-third of the state’s student population, according to the analysis. Georgia’s rural schools tend to have high poverty rates among students and low graduation rates, according to the report.
The report was compiled using data from the 2006-07 school year from the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau and The New America Foundation.
School officials in several Middle Georgia counties say one of the challenges of serving students in rural schools is having a smaller tax base, limiting the academic and cultural resources the schools can offer students.
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In addition, student poverty — commonly measured through eligibility for free and reduced lunches — affects the students in a number of ways, from reduced student concentration and parent involvement to transportation limitations.
“Children who are hungry cannot attend and cannot concentrate,” said Pansy Corbett, associate superintendent for Bleckley County schools, where between 53 percent and 56 percent of students have qualified for free or reduced lunches since 2006, according to statistics from the Georgia Department of Education.
About 66 percent of Crawford County’s students qualified for free or reduced price lunches in October 2006. This fall, that number climbed to about 75 percent.
“A lot of times when you have a high poverty rate and the community is economically disadvantaged, parents may not have resources to prepare students for school,” said Trey Seagraves, assistant superintendent in Crawford County.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of not wanting to, it’s not being able to.”
On the other hand, many say that working within a smaller community provides its own advantages.
“You know the children. You see the families, even if you don’t see them in the school,” said Lawanda Gillis, director of curriculum and instruction and Title I director in Dodge County. “You see them in the grocery store or church. You don’t have that in larger towns.”
Balancing needs and requirements
In the 2006-07 school year, Crawford County’s high school graduation rate was 62.3 percent, falling 10 percentage points below the state’s 72.3 percent graduation figure that year, according to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. That number is comparable to the system’s graduation rate in the 2008-09 year, even as the state rate grew to 78.9 percent.
With new graduation requirements that took effect in 2008, Seagraves worries the county’s graduation rate may fall even more with stricter state and national requirements.
Starting with current Georgia high school sophomores, all students will need to complete four years of math, English and science courses. Formerly, students could choose between a college prepatory or a technology/career preparatory diploma with varying course requirements.
While technology and career prep courses still will be offered to high school students, they will not be able to specialize their diplomas toward those fields any longer, Seagraves said.
Those decisions passed down from the state level negatively impact smaller school districts such as Crawford County, he said, where it would be best to leave them to local leaders who have a better understanding of the needs of the community.
“Taking away that flexibility is something we need to get away from,” Seagraves said. “Local schools need to be able to adjust to what students need.”
Seagraves said the goals of No Child Left Behind also are difficult to achieve. “It’s unrealistic on the outset,” he said. “It’s going to put a lot of schools in the state in the same boat. One hundred percent is a very large pill to swallow.”
Achievement in Dodge County
Dodge County’s schools have surpassed state graduation levels for the past three years. For the 2006-07 year, the county’s high school graduation rate was 79.9 percent and it grew to 88.8 percent two school years later. At the same time, the number of students eligible for free or reduced lunches in Dodge County hovered around 65 percent.
Offering class credit recovery at the middle school and high school levels and having all of its teachers classified as Highly Qualified under No Child Left Behind guidelines this year helps the students succeed, Gillis said.
“We’re very focused on student achievement,” Gillis said. “That is the focus working with the kids.”
Bleckley County has also achieved a graduation rate comparable to or above state levels in recent years. During the 2006-07 year, Bleckley County had a graduation rate of 72.1 percent. In 2008-09, that rate increased to 83.2 percent. Corbett attributes that success to a close-knit community that looks after its students, along with a strong curriculum and the efforts of teachers and students.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child, and it really, truly does,” Corbett said.
“We do think of ourselves as the village. Every child is important, and we try to help every child.”
To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.