NEWS:  S.C.’s rural schools have urgent needs, report says

By Andy Brack, editor and publisher  |  South Carolina’s rural schools urgently need more attention from state leaders, according to a new national report.

The Palmetto State’s rural schools, characterized as some of the a nation’s neediest and lowest achieving, have the fourth-highest “priority rating,” a combined measurement that includes a variety of demographic, achievement and funding factors, according to the report “Why Rural Matters 2015-2016” by the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust.

“Our state is taking steps forward for our youngest children, but we still must work together to improve children’s health and education starting from birth, in our child care system, and in quality and access for pre-K programs,” said Jamie Moon, president and CEO of the Institute for Child Success. ICS is a nonprofit early childhood policy and research organization based in Greenville and is a national partner in the Rural Trust report.

State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman told Statehouse Report that while rural districts have tremendous challenges, they could be overcome.

“I view these challenges as opportunities in which we must work together as a state  to ensure that we not only have adequate funding but also effective school and district leaders and an established culture in which students, parents and educators all play a proactive role and believe they can be successful,” she said through a spokesman.  “We have and continue to lay the groundwork for substantial change and I am committed to ensuring every student regardless of where they live as the tools and resources they need to be lifelong learners and productive citizens.”

What the report found

The “Why Rural Matters” report identified several challenges facing the state’s rural schools:

Low-income families.  Almost 69 percent of rural students come from low-income families, the fourth-highest state rate in the nation.

Minority students.  Almost half of rural students are minorities, the fifth-highest rate in the country.

Numbers.  Two of every five schools in the state are classified as rural; some 116,000 students attend rural schools.

Spending.  Data from 2015-16 in the report show that South Carolina’s rural schools have the 12th lowest rate of per-student spending – just over $5,200 per student, compared to more than double in the highest-ranked state.  While the state has added more funding for rural schools in recent years, it still is ranked 30th in the nation for the amount of money it spends on rural schools.  A spokesman for the state Department of Education notes, however, “rural poverty schools get substantial funding in Title 1 and other areas which raises the per pupil expenditures significantly and in most cases to more than non-rural districts.”

In the 2017-18 budget, lawmakers directed that an additional $55.8 million be spent on capital infrastructure improvements in high-poverty school districts, including those involved in the Abbeville school equity case.

Achievement.  The report highlights how S.C. rural school students have the sixth -lowest levels in fourth grade math and science, and low levels of achievement in various other categories.

College readiness.  Rural students in South Carolina have the sixth-lowest rate of taking Advanced Placement classes and the 11th lowest rate of high school graduation.

In recent years, South Carolina lawmakers also have boosted funding in rural areas by spending tens of millions of additional dollars to offer pre-kindergarten classes in poor and non-urban school districts in the state.

More progress needed

Longtime national education writer Alan Richard, a Greenville native who chairs the nonprofit that authored the report, noted how things are changing in South Carolina.

“There are many signs of progress in South Carolina’s rural schools and in early childhood, but many rural students who have such enormous potential deserve better educational opportunities across the state,” he said in a press release.

Hampton

Bernadette R. Hampton, president of The South Carolina Education Association, said rural schools will face continuing challenges.

“The new report details that 40 percent of our students attend schools in rural areas, with 68 percent eligible for free/reduced lunches, significantly higher than the national average,” she said.

“It took 20 years for a litigated process to redress rural inequality in the Abbeville vs. S.C. Department of Education lawsuit, and finally $110 million was allocated specifically to improve those schools in South Carolina’s “Corridor of Shame.” Yet, more than two years after the case only $55 million has been resourced to the affected districts.”

Hampton called for more incentives to lure new teachers to work in rural areas and for resources to retain teachers working there.

“Further, The SCEA maintains the need for wrap-around services, as would be provided by support systems such as detailed in the Community School model,” she explained.  “A Community School is at the center of the community – open all day, every day, to everyone – that brings together academics, health and social services, youth and community development and community engagement under one roof, leading to improved learning, stronger families, and healthier communities to ensure sufficient support mechanisms outside the classroom are available for students in rural districts.”

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