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Rural schools in Georgia are found across the state, on its rolling pastures, red clay fields, sandy coastlines, and wooded mountains. Geographic variations, along with differences in historical, cultural, and economic identities, create unique settings for rural education in Georgia. Despite the diversity of settings, there are several distinctively rural characteristics and schooling practices that are common in Georgia.
In 2003, one-third of Georgia's schools were located in a rural setting. Rural schools are designated as such not only because they are situated outside of urban and suburban locations but also because many of them have cultural and social identities that strongly tie them to their communities, local histories, and residents' collective values. A rural school in a Georgia county or town may be a community's only social gathering place, art gallery, sports arena, public meeting space, or telecommunications center.
Most of Georgia's rural schools have survived at least two or three rounds of consolidation. For example, Woody Gap School, located in the isolated and unincorporated mountain town of Suches, is a "unit," or K-12 school, with a typical enrollment of about 100 students. This small community school was formed from other, smaller church schools, which were once scattered across the unincorporated vicinity.
As rural school systems in Georgia have continued to consolidate their schools, few rural schools are still housed in their original buildings or situated in the heart of their local towns and communities. Most occupy modern, one-storied buildings, arranged in the traditional "egg-crate" style, with back-to-back identical classrooms forming graded halls or wings. As a result of a practice called economy of scale (meaning bigger is better and cheaper), newer rural schools typically serve as major hubs within counties, with large campuses and plenty of buffer space between the school and adjacent roads. They also are often located far from their local communities.
Georgia's rural educators and administrators have always faced many challenges. For example, as the result of reform by way of consolidation, Georgia has the largest rural schools in the nation. Many of these schools serve constituencies who struggle with poverty and live long distances from the school setting. Students may live in isolated communities, some with their homes located far down dirt roads. A 2001 study reporting on the average bus ride of a rural student in five rural states—Georgia being one of the five—found that 85 percent of the rural elementary schools participating in the study had students whose daily bus ride was longer than thirty minutes, the maximum time recommended for elementary students. Twenty-five percent of these rural schools reported that their students' longest rides exceeded sixty minutes (which is the maximum time recommended for high school students). Long bus rides, topography, treacherous weather, and isolation are factors that may hinder communication between home and school.
When students travel from their communities to remote campuses, they and their families may experience feelings of detachment from the school and its citizens. An additional lack of connection may result from state and school administrators' efforts to create uniform schools and districts, ignoring the unique needs of their constituents while requiring a greater accountability to state and federal governments. Often rural schools have limited staff, scarce resources, and a sparse tax base. These factors can limit programming, course offerings, and incentives for employee recruitment.
Compounding these issues are correlations between the performance of poverty-stricken students and that of students attending large schools with enrollments of 1,000 or more. (In such large schools students are less likely to be known well by adults or to be engaged in the school setting and thus may be more likely to stay at home or drop out.) Around 15 percent of Georgia's rural children live in poverty, compared with the national average of 13 percent. Twenty-six percent of Georgia's rural students are identified as members of a minority. A child in a sparsely populated rural county who begins the day with a fairly long bus ride is more likely to have parents who are unemployed, is less likely to be classified as gifted, and has a greater chance of becoming a high school dropout. Additional community factors that may affect Georgia's rural schools are a limited number of business partners, fewer opportunities for cultural enrichment, "brain drain" or community flight by teachers and gifted graduates, and higher tax rates in proportion to earned income.
Rural school systems in Georgia are working to address these factors by applying for and receiving federal and state grants. For example, Summerville Middle School in northwest Georgia participates in the 21st Century Community Learning Program. This federal initiative seeks to assist schools by keeping children safe and by providing academic enrichment and other recreational opportunities. The school has also received a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission for the implementation of the Chattooga Net Project, a technology initiative that seeks to close the gap between the technology "haves" and "have nots" of its students and teachers.
There are several common positive aspects of rural education in Georgia. For instance, many innovative practices originating in rural schools, such as interdisciplinary studies, peer-tutoring, nongraded classes, individualized instruction, and cross-age grouping, are used today in suburban and urban schools.
Many of Georgia's rural schools reflect the standards of their surrounding communities, which often include a strong work ethic, concern for neighbors, low crime rates, and environmental quality. A partnership between a rural school and its community allows for frequent interactions between community members, school employees, students, and their families.
Many rural students enjoy living in a rural setting and attending a rural school because the experience provides strong feelings of safety, connectedness, and intimacy. Further, attending small rural schools may provide more opportunities for students to take on leadership roles, participate in athletics, and organize extracurricular activities. In turn students gain skills and develop talents that can be transferred to a larger setting.
Screven County Middle School students produce the annual "A Walk Through Time" project, a living timeline presented by students and teachers to almost 3,000 visitors each year. Students are the docents, actors, curators, planners, and producers of the many demonstration sites, which share sharing newfound information with members of the community. A rural school that respects its students as resources, as community members whose work can have an impact on the community and its needs, can better instruct students in civic engagement and provide opportunities for experiential education. In this way, rural schools can produce citizens who are well suited to becoming leaders of their community.
Students at Hancock Central High School are able to learn firsthand about the free enterprise system in the town of Sparta. Through a partnership with Georgia's Rural Entrepreneurship through Action program, students have worked with sponsors and teachers to produce and market machine-embroidered spirit towels with the school's mascot, which students sell during basketball season. A successful effort to improve rural education honors the assets of the rural community and encourages its citizens to achieve local as well as global goals.
With the arrival of new technologies, professional accountability, and a more mobile population, rural schools in Georgia are improving academically. At the same time, they are losing many of the traditions and customs that provide students and their families with a unique sense of place.
Georgia's rural schools are often important centers of support and activity for the communities to which they are traditionally tied. The result of consolidation policies in Georgia's rural areas has been the creation of more-uniform administrative organizations and centralization in schools. As Georgia's rural schools begin to look more and more like their urban and suburban counterparts, local communities, which may embody the unique cultural identity of their students, become disenfranchised and are bypassed by rural education in the name of efficiency and reform. Rural schools in Georgia can educate their students to participate successfully in the larger society while honoring the historical and social uniqueness of their communities. To do so, a rural school may lead its students to explore and examine the curriculum from the context of a local setting as it applies to the larger world.
Instead of educating students to leave their communities, Georgia rural educators would serve the local community and its citizens well by considering such rural-centered education methodologies as the Foxfire approach and the League of Professional Schools. Both programs, which originated in Georgia, stress student-centered learning and democratic practices in a rural setting. Embracing what Jack Shelton, a rural education advocate and scholar, calls the "genius of place," rural educators and citizens of Georgia have around them sources of untapped information and experience. Armed with such an approach, as well as local partnerships and a dedication to continued academic rigor, Georgia's rural schools can teach their students how to be productive citizens in their own communities and state, while providing a larger lens for participating as citizens of the nation and of the world.