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Rural Schools Rely on Intangibles and Harder Work to Sustain Adequate Education

South Dakota News Watch reports on the challenges rural school districts face in adequately educating their dwindling youth populations. Nutshell: decreased funding, teacher turnover, students in poverty—no surprises.

SDNW’s Bart Pfankuch focuses on how the Edgemont and Woonsocket districts cope with these disadvantages:

But Amy Ferley, superintendent of the Edgemont School District in far southwestern South Dakota, said there are intangible benefits to a rural education that may not show up in statistics or in standardized-test results.

In the remote Edgemont district, teachers and administrators are able to form close relationships with students and their parents that allow for more individualized learning.

“We have 160 kids, so we know their names and their siblings’ names and their parents’ names and probably their dogs’ names,” Ferley said. “We’re trying to meet those kids at an individual level because it takes a special relationship between teachers and students to understand what kids need, and what they don’t, and how they shine in different areas.”

Those close relationships — and strong support from the local community — help offset some of the funding, staffing and logistical challenges faced by small districts, said Rod Weber, superintendent of the Woonsocket School District in east-central South Dakota.

“I credit our school for having a staff that makes our school the best in the area,” he said. “A lot of it also has to do with what our community has done to support the schools and make a lot of improvements to make it a viable place to live for young families” [Bart Pfankuch, “Rural Schools in S.D. Face Unique Challenges That Can Affect Learning,” South Dakota News Watch, 2019.11.07].

I found some advantages to teaching in a rural school district, like being my own English department and having much greater academic freedom than I would find in a larger district where curriculum is dictated from above. But rural teachers and schools have to work harder to keep those advantages alive, as demonstrated by the fact that, as Pfankuch reports, 45% of South Dakota school districts have “opted out,” deciding they need to tax themselves more than the state thinks is necessary to make their schools work.

Intangibles are good, but on the tangibles, if you want to teach in a rural school, understand that you will work tangibly harder and make tangibly less for your efforts.


  1. jerry 2019-11-12 08:16

    Medicaid Expansion would not only take care of the health our most needy citizens, the money the state would have in this expansion, could provide needed funding for these rural schools. Come on legislators, pull your collective heads out of your nether regions and think of the positives of them both.

  2. mike from iowa 2019-11-12 09:34

    Comparing small school faculties to large school faculties is like comparing artisans to mass production bots.

    This is not to say mass production doesn’t turn out good products, they just aren’t as lovingly sculpted.

  3. Donald Pay 2019-11-12 11:35

    I think there are pluses and minuses with any sized school. The larger schools can be impersonal places where a student gets lost. That can’t happen in a smaller school. But smaller schools can’t justify the specialized classes and opportunities, such as orchestra, that larger schools have. The trick is how to make both work.

    Making all schools work can’t be done without money, as the News Watch article points out. Not taxing income is the main problem with both the tax system and education system there.

  4. Debbo 2019-11-12 18:09

    When so many schools opt it, that’s a clear sign the legislature isn’t doing its job of providing education.

    I taught in small schools and the benefits are just as stated, but it also depends on the school’s leadership. One school had a greedy superintendent who tried to bleed the school out of its last dime while creating factions among the parents.

    There are many pluses in small schools, except living in poverty.

  5. Donald Pay 2019-11-12 21:21

    When opting out is nearly the norm, what you have is a broken system of aid to education.

    The major reason for the system that was instituted in the 1990s was to limit increases in property taxes. The state promised considerable increases in state aid while holding local districts to only modest increases in property taxes. The first few years there was more state money going into education, but because local tax effort was throttled back from what it was, that state money went more to backfill the money that could no longer be levied by local districts. Politicians, especially Janklow, double counted that money, claiming the same dollars were going to property tax reduction AND to local districts for education. In reality, most of the money that was passing through aid to education was going to backfill the revenue lost by limiting revenue from local taxes. Over time the state also throttled back its promised contributions, starving education. Opt outs, which were included more as stop gap measure that was not to be used very often, are now commonplace, because the state reneged on its promise to provide half or more of the cost of education.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-11-12 21:23

    As with libraries, we must be willing to invest in everyone with public schools. That means the wealthy elites need to be willing to surrender a percentage of their hoard so the poorest kids in the smallest towns can get as good of an education as the kids in the biggest, wealthiest school districts.

  7. jake 2019-11-13 05:23

    Don Pay you hit it exactly the way conservative Republican’s plan on reducing the so-called “entitlements” they call Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. Flush/flesh them out up front then starve them out while all the time wasting money on defense
    programs of lucrative value to few.

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-11-13 05:46

    …or, in South Dakota’s budget, where we don’t have money to spend on defense contractors, we divert money to certain rich cronies via trust laws, CAFO bribes and other big sales tax kickbacks, marketing contracts… hmm, what are the other big channels of corporate welfare in our state?

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