Let's hear it for small, rural schools and all they offer
We need to do more to help small, rural schools educate these kids, not less, Jenny Schlecht argues. The opportunities already are many, and strengthening them would help strengthen rural communities.
The North Dakota Legislature earlier in this 2023 session was considering a bill to cap superintendent salary and combine administrations in small districts . Very thankfully, the bill died earlier this month.
Frankly, no matter what the bill sponsor says about it being a conversation people wanted to have, it's a bill that should have never been written.
I'm assuming anyone who thought the conversation needed to be had has never spent time in or around a small rural school. For instance, in the small rural school my children attend, the superintendent and principal pitch in regularly for recess duty and in classrooms. The superintendent (who, full disclosure, is my brother-in-law) also regularly drives bus for regular routes and activities. Both administrators are fixtures at school events and do a lot of behind-the-scenes work that would otherwise not get done.
In other words, they are worth more than we could ever pay. I'm pretty sure those same things could be written about the administration of most small, rural schools. The same goes for the teachers, the paraprofessionals, the secretaries, business managers, custodians, the folks in the kitchen, etc.
I can't imagine what people think goes on at these tiny schools, but the reality is that I'm extremely thankful my kids go to one.
Oh, there are some downfalls. Some kids spend more than an hour on the bus, morning and night, because the district educates students from a huge geographic area. That's the way it has to be, because the even smaller, more rural schools couldn't stay open. The athletes at our middle and high school co-op with a school more than half an hour away, meaning even more bus time. And sometimes, there aren't as many class options as kids at a bigger school would have.
But the positives! My goodness, they more but make up for those downfalls. I went to a smallish high school — nothing on the order of my kids' school but also nowhere near the size of a school in a city. I started three varsity sports, spent some time in FFA, served on the student council, was in National Honor Society. I knew all of my teachers, all of my classmates, all of the administrators. There's no way I would have had all those opportunities and experiences at a bigger school.
I know small school kids around here who combine a dizzying amount of activities, excelling in many. There's the volleyball player who notched her 1,000th assist this year and also has made a couple appearances on the All-State choir. The star basketball player who also regularly ranks high on the list for FFA livestock judging contests. A straight-A student who takes stats for a couple sports and also gets paid for her piano skills. This is just a sample — I could go on for hours.
We need to do more to help these schools educate these kids, not less. I'm a fan of the recent move to three classes of basketball for North Dakota — a little parity might help keep more kids involved. Rather than bills in the future to weaken small, rural schools, let's advocate for things that could help make things even better — expanded opportunities for online or interactive TV classes, more career and technical funding , more funding for infrastructure, more funding to raise — not lower — the salaries of our teachers, support staff and administrators.
If we want a strong tomorrow for our rural areas, it starts in our rural schools.
Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 701-595-0425.