By Karen Campbell
The lay of the land when it comes to rural education could use a few obstacles removed and some leveling of the field, according to one advocacy group. The Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition released a report last week addressing rural Tennessee’s approach to English Learner education, Early Postsecondary Opportunity course access, and recruiting and supporting effective educators.
The Coalition, formed in 2016, is a group of diverse civil rights and education advocacy organizations who have built a shared policy agenda to address chronic disparities in achievement and opportunities for students of color in the state of Tennessee. The Lay of the Land is a report that looks at rural education and offers policy recommendations.
The report can be found at tnedequity.org and was summarized in a Chalkbeat.org piece featured in Tuesday’s Press. In it, high poverty rates, lower median household income, opioid addiction, and limited access to technology and healthcare were identified as issues rural Tennesseans face which then contribute to fewer people likely to attend college and more who are likely to receive food stamps than their urban counterparts.
While poverty and addiction are familiar crises facing Weakley residents, last week, County Commissioners voted to begin a partnership with WK&T that could turn the dial on access to technology. And while other areas with similar populations have witnessed hospitals closing, residents here are within short drives of two facilities. But where the county definitely goes against the rural trend is in the area of education.
To get a Weakley County perspective on the data that was unearthed by The Lay of the Land, The Press reached out to Randy Frazier, Weakley County director of schools. With relatively few students for whom English is a second language, the first aspect of the study is not applicable to the area. But when it comes to postsecondary readiness and recruiting personnel, the county has some challenges to overcome and some successes to celebrate.
For instance, the report reinforces that ACT scores are considered common predictors for postsecondary readiness. In the 2017-18 school year, Tennessee’s Ready Graduate measure highlighted the ratio of students who achieved a composite score of 21. Only 33 to 42 percent of students achieved a composite ACT score of 21 or higher and students in rural schools were found to be the least likely to meet this requirement for Tennessee’s Ready Graduate measure.
Not so for students in Weakley, notes Frazier. Last year, the county finished 23 out of 131 public school systems across the state with a composite ACT score of 21.1. As to why students here are seeing such higher scores than their rural counterparts, Frazier says it’s intentional.
“We have placed the focus on ACT with a team in each high school working on strategies to help promote or mediate our students’ scores,” he explained. Teachers and leaders get a supplement for their efforts which include brainstorming and sharing ideas and then implementing those strategies such the ACT Boot Camp which offers tips on test-taking.
“The most important score is ACT. They don’t get asked about GPAs. Determinations are made based on ACT,” emphasized Frazier. Another challenge facing rural schools involves Advanced Placement courses. The study references that AP courses require a specific certification that many rural teachers do not hold, as well as course and test fees that families in poverty are often unable to afford. Additionally, short-staffed rural schools struggle to place an instructor in an AP class if they need the instructor to teach in another subject area with bigger enrollment numbers.
Frazier explained that a few years ago, Weakley County schools moved away from AP courses and dual enrollment options “took off.” The change was due, in part, to the costs of AP whereas scholarship funds were available to take dual enrollment. Currently, Westview offers AP and dual enrollment is offered in every high school. Since some of the county’s higher academic achievers are now setting their sights on universities who do want to see AP courses on transcripts, Frazier says the county is looking at trying to slowly expand those options and also considering a pilot for AP in middle school.
In 2019, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission reported 46 percent of graduates entering postsecondary education required remedial coursework in mathematics, and 33 percent in reading.
Frazier’s tone significantly brightens as he reveals that Weakley County graduates placed in the lowest five districts in need of remediation.
“Williamson County was number one and we were number two in having the higher percentage of students prepared and not needing remediation,” he said, adding, “We buck the norm.”
A final focus of the study looks to recruiting and retaining teachers. Compared to urban and suburban, the rural school offers a less competitive first-year salary for a candidate with a bachelor’s degree, notes the study. The difference could be as high as $3,000 more in the suburban school compared to the rural one. New teachers also have to see the advantages of living in more-isolated areas with fewer amenities than urban and suburban communities.
The state’s Basic Education Program (BEP) funding formula continues to add to the hiring dilemma. As explained in The Lay of the Land, “in the BEP’s structure, communities must provide a matching contribution to the formula’s various components. This contribution draws from local tax revenue, which relies on a community’s tax base to support the community’s public education system. As a result, there is great variation in a local community’s capacity to fund education. The state offers an equalization formula, which is meant to offset the difference in a local district’s ability to pay.”
The example offered in the report is Obion County, where 36.6 percent of the school district’s total revenue is derived from the local contribution. In contrast, Williamson County School District is able to contribute 51.2 percent of its total school funds from the local contribution. In Tennessee, the state sets a flat teacher salary ($47,150) upon which it funds all instructional positions through the BEP.
Williamson County has the means to supplement and raise that salary, if necessary, because of the local contribution, which gives them more flexibility.
The state’s equalization formula may attempt to offset any funding inequities, notes the study, but it does not consider how the scope of local property wealth can impact a district’s ability to offer much higher salaries to beginner teachers.
Frazier has joined many voices advocating for a different funding approach. Recently he appeared on a panel before legislators, county executives, and business leaders to answer the question of whether public schools are fully funded.
“I told them, ‘They are fully funded as BEP-determined ratios, but the ratios are inadequate to fund a solid functioning system,’” he reported, giving as an example the Nashville area, which has 600 positions not included in BEP. With some reports indicating that as much as 15 percent of public school teachers in Tennessee are not included in BEP, Frazier hopes that a new formula can be reached, but points to the many years that the problem has been identified and remains unsolved.
Since rural areas are faced with less financial resources to cover positions considered necessary but not covered by the BEP, rural districts must be creative when leveraging resources. Local fundraising and community partnerships are critical.
“We have excellent relationships with our community partners,” acknowledged Frazier. “My only fear is we may overburden them.”
He points to creative ways to partner that are not always requests for dollars. MTD, for example, is one the biggest financial supporters and will also provide equipment, like mowers for the football field, and technology. Other examples include banks and businesses that sponsor student and teacher incentives, as well as field trips.
“Our vision moving forward is to be more progressive to try and find partners for CTE (Career and Technical Education),” he explained.
“We already have one of the last teaching farms in the state. We’d love to work with Tyson and Tosh Farms and other partnerships that will enhance opportunities for students,” Frazier said.
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