Archives for category: Rural Schools

In a stunning turn of events, the charter schools affiliated with ultra-conservative Hillsdale College withdrew their applications in three counties. The counties rejected them, but the state charter commission had the power to override the local school boards. The charters stirred controversy in the rural counties, and the president of Hillsdale College made matters worse by insulting teachers.

American Classical Education — a group set up to create a network of charter schools affiliated with Hillsdale College across Tennessee — has withdrawn its applications to open schools in Madison, Montgomery and Rutherford counties.

This follows months of controversy since Gov. Bill Lee announced a “partnership” with the ultraconservative Michigan college during his State of the State Address in January.

ACE’s application had been rejected in all three counties, and they faced a contentious appeal next week before the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, which could have overruled the local school boards.

“We made this decision because of the limited time to resolve the concerns raised by the commission staff and our concerns that the meeting structure and timing on Oct. 5 will not allow commissioners to hear directly from the community members whose interests lie at the heart of the commission’s work,” board chair Dolores Gresham wrote in a letter delivered Thursday to the commission….

Lee had praised Hillsdale’s “patriotic” approach to education and asked Hillsdale president Larry Arnn to open as many as 100 of the taxpayer-funded schools across the state.

But a NewsChannel 5 investigation had highlighted issues with Hillsdale’s curriculum, including a rewriting of the history of the civil rights movement.

Hidden-camera video also revealed Arnn making derogatory comments about public school teachers coming from “the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges.”

More recently, NewsChannel 5 Investigateshad uncovered video of a Hillsdale College professor, who teaches part of an online course about the civil rights movement, questioning the achievements of famous Black Americans.

Early on, Governor Lee asked Hillsdale to open 100 charters in Tennessee, and Hillsdale College scaled the number back to 50. At the moment, Hillsdale has none. Governor Lee underestimated the close ties between rural communities and their public schools. The people of Tennessee were unwilling to toss aside the teachers they know and the schools that are the hub of their communities.

Please open the link to read the rest of the story. Hillsdale might try again.

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Texas Governor Greg Abbott is determined to pass voucher legislation if he is re-elected. He has pushed for vouchers repeatedly and been defeated by a coalition of urban Democrats and rural Republicans. Our friends, the Pastors for Texas Children, have been champions of public schools, knowing that vouchers would undermine public schools in rural and suburban Texas. Governor Abbott, as usual, is pandering to the far-right extremists in his party who want to privatize everything.

The Texas Monthly describes Abbott’s sleazy tactics:

Undermining public schools has been a winning strategy for governors in several states. But for many rural, conservative communities in Texas, such schools are the only game in town.

By Bekah McNeel

At a July campaign event in Fort Stockton, Governor Greg Abbott played what has proven to be a winning card for Republicans across the country. “Parents,” he said, “should not be forced to send their child to a government-mandated school that teaches critical race theory, or is forcing their child to wear a face mask against their parents’ desire, or is forcing them to attend a school that isn’t safe.”

Actually, Abbott long ago outlawed mask mandates, and he and the Republican Legislature have heavily regulated what can be taught about race in Texas schools. But touting the progress of his agenda is less compelling than making a bogeyman of public schools altogether—telling parents that they deserve more control over what, where, and how their children learn. It’s a strategy that has well served Republican politicians such as Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin and Florida governor Ron DeSantis.

The buzz phrase “parental control” can cover a lot of ground, from oversight over classroom lessons and library books to school choice, and it’s a concept that most Republican voters support. But Abbott has lately taken parental control a giant step further by promoting school vouchers—government funds that would allow families to send their kids to public or private schools, including religious institutions and homeschooling arrangements. Supporters depict vouchers as the acme of parents’ control over their children’s education. But critics, including many conservative Texans, worry that they will inevitably drain resources from public schools, which in many small communities are the only schools available.

What most call “vouchers” can actually be several different things: tax credits for tuition or homeschooling supplies, access to a government savings account or scholarship that can be used for private school tuition, or a reimbursement for a set amount of educational expenses. Abbott has not committed to a specific kind of program, only to the idea that parents’ tax dollars should be able to pay for private school tuition.

These subsidies—often between $4,000 and $8,000 a year—don’t cover the full annual tuition rates of most private schools, which average between $9,000 and $11,000 in Texas, leading many critics to describe them as gifts to those who can already afford some level of tuition. The neediest students, they argue—those most likely to be in struggling schools—are still left with a considerable bill if they choose to participate.

“It looks like voucher programs in the past have always been about subsidizing affluent to wealthy folks who want private school for their kids,” said Charles Luke, codirector of Pastors for Texas Children. His group has always opposed vouchers, not only on the basis of the potential cost to public schools, but also on the grounds of separating church and state. Luke worries about government interference with religious or church-affiliated schools. “Government interference isn’t good for the church,” he said.

Where the money comes from and what strings are attached will be the devil in the details of bills soon to be filed for the 2023 Legislature, especially as Republicans vie to cut property taxes as well. Texas pays for public schools on a per-pupil basis, so every student lost represents a loss of revenue. School-voucher proponents say that state money should follow students to whatever public or private schools their parents choose. But superintendents argue that when a student leaves a public school for a private one, the district’s costs—for everything from classroom teachers to bus drivers—don’t decline proportionately.

Superintendents and elected representatives from rural areas—many of whom are Republicans—fear that the state would fund vouchers by reducing funding for public schools in places where such schools serve as community hubs, providing meeting spaces, sports competitions, and social services like school nutrition programs and health screenings. Places like Palestine, Texas.

Parents in Athens County, Ohio, are concerned that a planned new charter school will drain funding away from their local public schools. The proposed classical academy is relying on conservative Christian Hillsdale College to deliver its curriculum and set it up but insists it is not a Hillsdale charter, despite appearances.

A planned charter school with ties to evangelical Christian and politically conservative organizations could, if successful, divert approximately $2 million a year from area school districts starting in 2024.

Southeast Ohio Classical Academy, to be based in Athens County, has stirred controversy among local parents and educators who are concerned in part about the school’s:

  • Association with a private Christian college known for its political activism.
  • Ties to a “planted” evangelical church in Athens.
  • Curriculum based on “our Western civilization inheritance.”
  • Potential to siphon state funding away from public schools.

Those concerns have been aired on social media, including a spirited discussion in the Women of Athens Facebook group last month and the creation of an Athens Parents against SOCA Twitter page. Local law enforcement investigated one Facebook comment for “indirect threats” to SOCA board members, although the case was closed without charges.

The school’s founders say that SOCA has no religious affiliation, that its curriculum offers a “well-rounded education,” and that “school choice is a part of freedom.”

Public charter school, private Christian backing

Board member Kim Vandlen said she has long hoped to open a classical school, inspired by her own education at Hillsdale Academy in Michigan. The private, Christian K-12 school is operated by Hillsdale College, a private Christian college with longstanding ties to libertarian and conservative politics.

In the Texas governor’s race between the vile Gregg Abbott and challenged Beto O’Rourke, the candidates are fighting for rural votes on the issue of vouchers. Rural Republicans have a strong allegiance to their public schools, which are often the heart of the community and its biggest employer. Many rural communities do not have any other schools.

Yet Governor Abbott has supinely sought the approval of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation of Children.

The Texas Tribune summed up the conflict:

A battle over school vouchers is mounting in the race to be Texas governor, set into motion after Republican incumbent Greg Abbott offered his clearest support yet for the idea in May.

His Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke, is hammering Abbott over the issue on the campaign trail, especially seeking an advantage in rural Texas, where Democrats badly know they need to do better and where vouchers split Republicans. O’Rourke’s campaign is also running newspaper ads in at least 17 markets, mostly rural, that urge voters to “reject Greg Abbott’s radical plan to defund” public schools.

Abbott, meanwhile, is not shying away from the controversy he ignited when he said in May that he supports giving parents “the choice to send their children to any public school, charter school or private school with state funding following the student.” He met privately last week with Corey DeAngelis, an aggressive national school choice activist who had previously criticized Abbott as insufficiently supportive of the cause.

“School choice” tends to refer to the broad concept of giving parents the option to send their kids to schools beyond their local public school, while vouchers would allow parents to use state tax dollars to subsidize tuition for those other options, including private schools. Opponents of vouchers say they harm public school systems by draining their funding. In the Legislature, vouchers have long encountered resistance from Democrats and rural Republicans whose public schools are the lifeblood of their communities.

O’Rourke is leaning into the bipartisan salience of the issue.

“For our rural communities, where there’s only one school district and only one option of public school, he wants to defund that through vouchers, take your tax dollars out of your classroom and send it to a private school in Dallas or Austin or somewhere else at your expense,” O’Rourke told a rural audience recently.

As usual, the voucher vultures are pushing the lie that money taken away from your public school will allow children to attend elite private schools.

It can’t be said often enough: voucher funds are never enough to pay for elite public funds. It is a lie. Voucher funding ranges from $4,000 to $8,000. The tuition at elite private schools ranges from $30,000 to $70,000.

Elite private schools don’t have vacancies. When they do, they don’t seek to enroll poor kids.

After 25 years of vouchers, the research is clear: kids who leave community public schools for voucher schools lose academic ground. Large numbers return to their public schools.

Meanwhile public schools are grievously harmed by the withdrawal of funding. They must lay off teachers and cut programs.

If the Devil designed a program to hurt the public schools, he would call it vouchers. And it would be funded by the American Federatuon for Chiildren.

Molly Olmstead writes in Slate that the rightwing plan to replace public schools with charter schools just took a big step backward in Tennessee. Governor Bill Lee, an evangelical Christian, wanted to bring 100 charter schools designed by extremist Hillsdale College to Tennessee to spread the gospel of patriotism, capitalism, and evangelical religion to the state. Hillsdale scaled the plan back to 50 schools, expecting to spread them across the state.

But then someone taped a conversation between Bill Lee and Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale. Arnn said insulting things about teachers. The Governor didn’t speak up. Then school boards got angry. They respect their teachers. Their teachers are their neighbors. Lots of Tennessee teachers are Republicans. Their neighbors don’t think they are “radical Marxists.” They know they are not “grooming” their children.

Arnn and Lee made the Hillsdale brand toxic. Arnn was out of touch. So was Governor Lee. The people of Tennessee don’t want to dump their public schools. They don’t like it when people dump on their teachers.

Back off, Governor Lee.

Go back to Michigan, Larry Arnn.

Vouchers are a big issue in Texas. Governor Greg Abbott recently announced he would promote them. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick—the Rush Limbaugh of Texas—is a voucher fanatic. Senator Ted Cruz said that school choice is the most important issue of our time.

But vouchers have died every time they are introduced in the legislature. Legislators from rural communities stand firm against vouchers. Jay Leeson explained why in the Dallas Morning News.

He wrote:

Vouchers are unpopular in places where public schools are the lifeblood of community.

With Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement that he’ll pursue “school choice” in the upcoming Legislature, there’s political math to be done.

The governor’s proposal is pencil whipping his previously reliable rural voting base, presuming that rural communities will stick with him as he looks past the November match-up against Beto O’Rourke, and moves to the next problem of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a probable 2024 presidential foe. But in rushing to check off another box on the national GOP purity exam, questionable work has been submitted.

Out where rural public schools constellate expansive Lone Star landscape, out where the real Texas economic miracle of food, fuel, and fiber is produced, there’s pencil scratching being done.

Rural folks know school choice will come at their expense. Almost like the same-old bait (moral convictions) and switch (economic interests) over and over. It’s been that way for more than 30 years, since the GOP came to power promising term limits and local control — and how has that gone?

We’ve voted for plenty of slippery-as-slop-jar scenarios, like numerous federal officials who vote against subsidies for the state’s $25 billion annual agriculture industry. In 2018, cotton had fallen out of a federal funding program to help producers break even, and it was Abbott who single-handedly stalled restoration from Austin. We’ve closed 26 hospitals since 2010. Now just 163 hospitals provide care for 85% of the state’s geography, many with limited services. We’ve incrementally upped local property taxes to fill state budget holes over three decades. And Abbott’s routing of state infrastructure, including pivotal rural telecommunications by his commissioned appointees, could make Santa Anna blush.

But the missing variable in the slippery school choice proposal is the importance of public schools to respective rural communities — and the pillars of community within those schools. I know because I attended them.

Gid Adkisson, a gargantuan man, long in kindness as he was physique, was a retired school superintendent in Abernathy (population 2,904, about 25 miles north of Lubbock) with a bad lifelong cotton farming habit. He’d head out from his homestead to the high school for Gid Night Lights to voluntarily tutor us in algebra on Mondays and Thursdays, so we could play under the Friday Night Lights.

Children, even deviant teenagers like I was, know goodness when they see it. When I first think of Gid, I don’t picture him physically; I think of his heart. The physical trait I most remember is the big dent on his forehead that shone in the lights of Ms. Hardin’s classroom.

Bettie Hardin was a petite, put-together woman — pristine white perm, horn-rimmed glasses, mock turtleneck. She played the Methodist piano every Sunday morning with the same precision she expected from our math during the week.

Sports were our world. And Ms. Hardin could end that world with the swipe of a red pen.

But Gid came to the rescue, helping us understand it all. The first time I figured out ratio and proportion equations, Gid was right there, two huge knuckles on the desk behind me, affirming and encouraging me as my mind translated through pencil what Hardin and he had worked so hard to cultivate. When the problem was solved, the huge knuckles rose above the suspenders past the dent and to the lights, “Good, golly. You got it.”

I don’t today use an acquired high school skill — from on or off the field — more frequently than that equation.

Sitting in Wayne Riley’s 6th Grade Sunday School with half a dozen others was the first time I ever first-hand witnessed a grown man weep; we’d know him later as Coach Riley, our varsity basketball coach.

When my grandmother passed, I was destroyed and my band teacher Harold Bufe took a knee and consoled me about the loss of my world and his longtime friend.

When Gid died, many of us learned what we didn’t know all along: he’d been rescuing people for a long time. He led the 317th Regiment, 80th Infantry Division up Utah Beach where dented-head man earned, but later refused, a Purple Heart. Too many missing human variables under his command for him to accept such an award.

Public education gave us a tutor who defeated Hitler, coaches who earned our respect, and band teachers who helped us outside the notes. And Ms. Hardin who played Amazing Grace as the soundtrack.

My story isn’t uncommon, which is the point.

We’ll vote against ourselves on a myriad of issues, but not our schools.

Add to it all, rural folks know a little grammar as well.

“Choice” is a political synonym for “consolidation” and “consolidation” is another way of saying “closing” our communities — and our organists, Purple Hearts, and Sunday school teachers.

The political math for Abbott and statewide Republicans is they desperately need rural Texas votes to overcome deficits in the likes of Dallas, Tarrant, Travis, and Harris Counties. Their campaign commercials running longer loops every four years are evidence.

And while Oltons, Borgers, Ballingers, Floydadas, Abernathys, and the 85% of Texas geography won’t become Beto O’Rourke Country anytime soon, if ever, these places might just not vote.

Pull the lever, do your duty, get the sticker, but leave the gubernatorial box left open.

The collective rural Republican state representative silence on the governor’s initiative is already telling. Silence from electeds who backed Abbott’s $118 million for pre-K public education funding in 2015, only to have Abbott abdicate in subsequent far-right primary challenges.

Mr. O’Rourke may well come for some of our guns, but that’s highly unlikely with a legislative and judicial GOP stronghold.

But Abbott’s open threat is against the lifeblood of our communities: our schools. And he’s making it with a three-branch majority.

That’s Abbott’s math now. And Gid’s currently unavailable to tutor.

Jay Leeson is a freelance writer and artist in Lubbock. He wrote and illustrated this for The Dallas Morning News.

John W. Miller of The Daily Yonder writes about a phenomenal troupe of actors who are devoted to bringing Shakespeare to rural America, not as “cultural saviors,” but as people who love the works of the Bard. Remember that Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed. In 19th century America, actors brought Shakespeare plays and scenes to small towns, and sometimes performed in local taverns to enthusiastic audiences who knew the plays well enough to throw tomatoes when the actors messed up their lines. In his important study of Shakespeare and American popular culture, historian Lawrence W. Levine reminds us of the two rogues in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn who “pass themselves off as a duke and a king,” and plan to raise money by performing scenes from Romeo and Juliet and Richard III. The troupe described here are not rogues and they do know their lines.

Miller writes:

Jason Young, co-founder of West Virginia’s only touring Shakespeare troupe, rejects the notion that his group, the Rustic Mechanicals, might be playing the role of savior bringing culture to small-town rubes. 

In his view, the Bard already belongs to rural America, because he, as a small-town West Virginian, belongs to rural America. 

“We do this because we are the hicks who happen to know Shakespeare, and we’re making an investment in our home,” he said.

Reports of Rust Belt decline often focus on the shrinking paycheck, but the dispossession is also cultural. When a factory closes, a town loses a thousand people who could pay ten bucks to see a concert or show. Art follows the money. It’s a kind of poverty that most journalism about economic and economic geography struggles to capture. 

That’s why Young’s work is so important. The Bridgeport, West Virginia-based director and actor is busy rehearsing and in 2022 will lead his troupe of 10 or so actors on a 60-date tour of West Virginia and surrounding states. Starting in April, they’ll perform — incredibly — five different plays: Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Love Labor’s Lost. The venture is funded by fees from schools and theaters, and grant money.

The troupe is still organizing bookings and ironing out their schedule, and all details will be available on their Facebook page. 

Each play will be cut down to 90 minutes and performed with simple costumes and modern music. 

Young founded the troupe, named after rambling actors in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with West Virginia actor Celi Oliveto in 2014. Young, who was born in West Virginia’s southern coalfields, where his dad worked as a mine health and safety inspector, had been teaching high school drama for six years and was tired, he told me, of “churning out musicals so parents could clap for their kid while he’s dressed as a Dalmatian.”

The new gang started in 2014 with a seven-person production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that toured four venues, including an amphitheater attached to a Baptist church. 

The Network for Public Education created a website where. Parents could express their views about their schools. This post was written by Jessica Piper, a mom and a farmer in rural Missouri.

She writes:

I am a rural woman. I am a subsistence farmer raising hogs and chickens in Northwest Missouri in a town of 480 people. I live in a century-old farmhouse on a few acres on the Iowa border that we purchased for less than the price of a new car. I was also an American Literature teacher for sixteen years, and my children are all products of rural schools. Our youngest is still in school and her class, the entire fourth grade, consists of 16 children. 

Public schools are the heart of rural Missouri. The school bus picks up my daughter at the end of our driveway every morning, avoiding the chickens pecking in the gravel. She arrives at a tiny school that supports her and knows her well. She eats in the cafeteria that also serves as the gym. We mark the cafeteria Thanksgiving meal on our calendars to eat lunch with our kids—the turkey is pretty good but we really come for the annual tradition and because our kids expect us. Entire communities gather for Christmas pageants and band and choir concerts in our rural schools. We attend Friday night football and basketball games and reserve the rest of the evenings for softball or baseball. We know the teachers and we support schools with raffles and by buying apples and beef jerky from the yearly FFA sales. Nearly every event in our small community revolves around our school.

I tell you the story of rural schools because we are in a fight to keep our public schools funded and open in Missouri. In my state, we are 49th in funding for public schools. We don’t provide public schools with enough for the basics. The state funds just 32% of schools’ budgets, which means that residents must pay for the bulk of their local school expenses through property taxes. That means that our system is highly inequitable. The defunding of Missouri public schools has happened over the last decade, but has been on warp speed in the last five years. The school funding formula was adjusted to lower the amount a few years back, meaning we lowered the funding bar to be able to claim we met the bar. And now, even more bad news for Missouri rural schools: a voucher scheme.

In 2021, Missouri Republicans devised and signed into law a system for vouchers that will further defund public schools. This is how it works: Missouri taxpayers can receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit that will pay for private school vouchers. In essence, public tax funds will be diverted to private or religious schools with no oversight or accountability for student performance. Missouri will allow folks to essentially pay their taxes directly to the private school of their choice, defunding public schools in the process. In rural Missouri, our schools are already strapped for resources. Diverting money away to any fly-by-night charter, or a private school that accepts vouchers will devastate our rural schools.

When schools are defunded, the next move is often consolidation. When a school consolidates, students may be travelling to and from school for over an hour a day. School consolidations also ravage small communities and often cause ripples that can be felt for years. In my town, the school is the largest employer. Community members who work for the school district receive health insurance through their employer, while disadvantaged children are fed through the school year through the  school free lunch program. School closures cripple small businesses and decrease property values. Our main streets empty out with the loss of a local school. When schools consolidate, rural communities lose their economic epicenter.

We must fully-fund public schools in an equitable way for all children to have the opportunity that a public education promises. Rural students and our small communities count on public schools. Charter and privatization schemes purposely funnel public tax money into private hands. That’s harmful to rural Missouri public schools and to our kids. 


Jessica Piper is a candidate for state representative in rural Northwest Missouri. She received her BA in English and her MA from the University of Arkansas at Monticello. She was a tenured American Literature teacher and frequently writes about rural schools and school funding. She lives on the Missouri/Iowa border with her husband, children, and two dogs. Piper is a farmer who raises hogs and chickens.

Jan Resseger writes here about Montana Senator Jon Tester’s deep and well-grounded belief in public education. He says that Democrats would have greater success in red states if they talked about the importance of public schools and the elites who are trying to privatize them.

Think about it. The vast majority of students in the United States attend public schools even when school choice is offered to them. Only 6 percent choose to attend charter schools; about 2 percent use vouchers. By now we know that neither charter schools nor vouchers offer a better education than democratically controlled public schools. Yet the billionaires continue to fund failure.

I hereby add Senator Jon Tester to the blog’s honor roll of champions of public education.

Resseger writes:

In mid-December, the NY Times‘ Jonathan Martin interviewed Montana Senator Jon Tester about his new book, Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America. Tester, a Democrat and U.S. Senator in his third term, represents a deep red state.

Tester tells Martin: “Democrats can really do some positive things in rural America just by talking about infrastructure and what they’re doing for infrastructure, particularly in the area of broadband. And then I would say one other policy issue is how some Republicans want to basically privatize public education. That is very dangerous, and I think it’s a point that people don’t want to see their public schools close down in Montana…”

Many hope President Joe Biden’s administration will significantly reshape federal education policy. During last year’s campaign for President, Biden, the candidate, declared a public education agenda that contrasts sharply with what happened to federal policy in public education beginning in the 1990s and culminating in the 2002 No Child Left Behind and later in 2009 in Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top.  Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire describe the past couple of decades: “Together, led by federal policy elites, Republicans and Democrats espoused the logic of markets in the public sphere, expanding school choice through publicly funded charter schools. Competition, both sides agreed, would strengthen schools.  And the introduction of charters, this contingent believed, would empower parents as consumers….”

Now with Biden’s election, many are looking for a turn by prominent Democrats back to the urgent needs of the public schools as a new COVID-19 recession compounds funding problems lingering in state budgets from the Great Recession a dozen years ago and as school privatization through charter school expansion and vouchers continues to thrust public schools deeper into fiscal crisis. Senator Jon Tester believes Democrats can rebuild support in rural America by attending to the needs of rural public education.

Tester’s new book folds policy ideas into memoir, with the back story a tribute to small town public schooling.  An indifferent high school student, Tester was encouraged by a debate coach, “who taught me how to articulate political arguments” and “taught us how to structure speeches to build an arc of suspense. He taught us the importance of clarity and simple language.”  Tester was elected student body president at Big Sandy High School: “For Government Day, on behalf of Big Sandy’s students, I invited one of our area’s most familiar elected leaders to visit with us about his long career in public service… Senator James was a tall, soft-spoken old farmer who accepted my invitation graciously and visited with us Big Sandy students for the better part of a day. He made the art and war of state politics sound fun.”

A trumpet player and college music major, Tester taught elementary school music at F.E. Miley Elementary School but was forced to resign when the paltry salary, even on top of what he could earn from farming, made it impossible for his family to get by. Tester ran for the local board of education and served for nearly a decade, including stints as vice chair and chair: “To this day, I’m asked about my most difficult job in politics. Without a doubt, my answer is the nine years I spent on the Big Sandy school board; it seemed everyone had strong opinions about public school policies, disciplinary actions, money, pay, taxes, ethics, graduations, grades, teacher performance, coaches, bullies, scholarships—it was a nine-year roller-coaster ride, and I loved every twist and turn.”

There is more. Open the link and read the rest of her piece about this wonderful Senator from Montana.

Arnold and Carol Hillman were educators in Pennsylvania. They retired to South Carolina and, instead of golfing and relaxing, they became involved with rural public schools. They created clubs for high school boys and girls and helped steer their kids towards college. I wrote about their work with students in rural schools several times. See here. Arnold wrote me recently to tell me about the devastating impact of the pandemic on rural students, and I asked him to write it up for the blog. He wrote the section about Rasheem, and Carol wrote about LaRonda.

They wrote:

Rasheem and LaRonda are two students in a rural South Carolina county. A review of county statistics will show that the county is 700 square miles. It is one of the poorest counties in the state. Over the past five years, the education system has declined in quality. The ACT scores have descended 15.8%. Even the state’s average ACT scores have gone down from 18.6 to 18.1. 

When you travel around the county, you are struck by the endless roads that seem to include only a forested area on both sides and a town or two with some stores and maybe a gas station. You must travel to the county seat to go shopping at a supermarket or travel to the other urban center at the bottom of the county.

Choices in any aspect of normal life are limited. There is one dentist in the area. He is a homer, comes from one of the towns. Other medical facilities such as a hospital are close to Route 95 near the bottom of the county. The rural districts that occupy both sides of Route 95 have been dubbed, “The Corridor of Shame.” That was also a documentary film done in 2007 to describe the area and the public schools.

We have visited 21 of the 41 (will be 37 districts when certain consolidations take place) rural school districts in the state. There are many Rasheem’s and Laronda’s in those areas. Having traveled to see away basketball games, we can also point out that there are many similarities up and down these counties.

The school district personnel are well aware of the problems of both of these students. Rasheem lives with his grandmother. His parents have had other children and could not handle Rasheem too. So, when he turned seven, they transferred responsibility for raising Rasheem to his maternal grandmother. Zelda provides all of the necessities of life, as much as she can, to Rasheem. She lives on a pension and social security.

Rasheem’s parents were divorced sometime after Rasheem went to live with his grandmother. They both have new families with new spouses or live-ins. Rasheem is a senior in high school and like many kids his age, has dreams of getting away from home and making a better life for himself. He wants to go to college or join the air force or maybe become a racecar driver. He works part-time at a local Piggy Wiggly and has a used car he bought from an uncle. His earnings cover his car insurance, gas, and the $200 he must pay in South Carolina annual car tax. Anything left over covers his school clothes, which he keeps outgrowing. He plays basketball and hopes to win a scholarship. The coach thinks he’s good enough for a Division I1 school. 

However, his dreams may not come true. This Covid-19 year, a number of schools have cancelled football and other fall sports, as well as the winter sports seasons Therefore, as hard as it was for scouts to come down to see him and others playing, it is now just a dream.

Rasheem has a 3.4 GPA (Grade Point Average) and he works hard to keep his grades up, so he has become pretty good at time management. The one subject he struggles with is math. It’s not really the math that is so hard, it’s that he can’t always understand his math teacher. Rasheem’s school, like many South Carolina rural schools, is very isolated and very poor. They can’t afford to pay teachers well and there are no places for teachers from outside of the county to live. So, when the high school principal tries to fill vacancies with certified teachers, she often needs to recruit teachers from India or South America, people looking for any job they can find in America. These teachers may know their subject matter, but their grasp of American English and even their understanding of American students is often lacking. 

When Covid-19 appeared last March, schools in South Carolina closed. Everything went virtual. This fall there has been a back and forth between virtual and in-person education. Because of senior students wanting to play some kind of ball, both girls and boys, some of them have transferred to private schools. 

Rasheem’s guidance counselor has been trying to talk to him about his future plans since he was a junior, but it wasn’t until he hit his senior year that he paid much attention. The guidance counselor has a big case load. She has students with many different and sometimes pressing problems.  She tries to remind her seniors about college applications and financial aid forms. The burden of staying on top of all this is up to the students. Rasheem does not have anyone in his family who has been to college, in fact, his grandma did not graduate from high school.

Neither Rasheem nor his grandma are familiar with anything to do with college, but among the good choices he has made are his decisions to join the basketball team and ROTC. Colonel Manning and Coach Phillips are both very caring, capable individuals who have Rasheem’s best interest in mind. They have been trying to talk to him about what he needs to do to realize his dreams. 

Working with the group that I have been mentoring for 5 years has become almost impossible. Many of the students have gotten jobs and are really not calling or Zooming with me. When I do hear from them, it is a short call with me asking them if they have filled out their FAFSA forms, if they have any intent of going to college. 

Rasheem is planning to take the ASVAB. The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery is a test you must take to get into the armed services. You need a score of 31 out of 99 to get into the Army and a 36 for the Air Force. He took the ACTs (American College Testing) last year and scored a 16 out of 36 on the test. He will need to bring that score up to somewhere in the mid 20’s, which is not a score that many students get in rural South Carolina. While students from some of the advantaged districts come from families that prepare them for college, most rural parents are not aware of steps to take to help their children. Many of the parents have not gone to college and are not familiar with FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms. 

Students from families with college experience have been preparing for the transition from high school to college from the time their children were born. Their children have visited colleges and taken practice tests of both the ACTs and the SATs. Rasheem has done none of that because he didn’t have a family helping him. This is only one challenge Rasheem is facing.

Other challenges are the fact that his high school does not have a high rating on the South Carolina state tests. They do not have a high graduation rate. Many of Rasheem’s classmates do not see education as a priority and so he competes for his teachers’ attention with disruptive students. Some of his teachers are burnt out from dealing with the Covid -19 problems and don’t provide the best possible instruction. 

On days when school is in session, Rasheem eats a free breakfast and lunch at school. When he gets home, after school and before work, his grandma gives him supper. On weekends and over vacation breaks Rasheem doesn’t always get three meals a day. Even working in a grocery store does not entitle him to free food.

His family has been generous enough to help him pay for senior pictures and the prom (if they have one), but he will not be attending the senior class trip (if there is one) because he can’t afford it.

LaRonda is a junior at the same high school.  She is smart, quick with a quip and talented in art and writing. Last year, LaRonda played on the basketball team. She is skilled, agile and has a burning competitive spirit. She has a 4.0 Grade Point Average and has taken all the AP (Advanced Placement) Courses the school offers.

Her family situation is not the same as Rasheem’s. LaRonda has a mom and dad. She has two brothers and a new baby sister. She is responsible for taking care of her younger brothers, as well as helping with the baby. This restricts her from getting a job or having any social life.

Transportation is a real problem. LaRonda’s family has one car and it serves Mom, Dad, Grandma and LaRonda.. She has started a small business of her own “doing hair.” Because of COVID and the baby sister, she cannot do hair at home. She needs to travel to clients. Again, the problem of sharing the car.

LaRonda is angry. She resents her mother for having more children whom LaRonda needs to care for. Her friends advise her to “have it out” with her mother and say she is going to get an after-school job so she can have her own money. LaRonda really wants to do that, but then she thinks, “what will happen to my baby sister”?

LaRonda is in the gifted program She has taken Algebra I three times. The first time was when she was in 7th grade. She was in the gifted program so she, along with other gifted 7th graders, was put in Algebra 1 (usually given in 9th grade). You only get credit for a course if you pass the final exam. She and her friends got all “A’s” in the class but were told that because they were only in 7th grade, they could not take the test. In 8th grade they took Algebra I, again getting “A’s”, but were not allowed to take the final exam because, “since you took Algebra 1 before it’s not fair to the other students who were taking Algebra 1 for the first time.” In 9th grade, when the non-gifted students had gone on to Geometry, LaRonda and her cohorts were taking Algebra 1 for the third and final time. They all passed the final exam with flying colors! 

Before COVID-19 made meeting in-person impossible, Carol and Lynn met with the 10 girls they mentored weekly. They shared lunch, laughter, sometimes tears and always hello and goodbye hugs. Together the group has mentored younger students and run fundraisers that have enabled them to go on trips and exciting overnight adventures. All that is missing now. 

Carol and Lynn try to stay in touch with the girls they have been mentoring, but, like Rasheem and his friends, COVID is making that difficult. Carol and Lynn call the girls individually. That works sometimes. When LaRonda desperately needed a computer, Lynn found a computer and printer for her that had been refurbished by a friend. 

LaRonda has always said she wants to go to college to become a pediatrician, but her older friends who were in college are now dropping out. They loved college in person – spending time with friends on campus, but they are so turned off by the virtual learning and so unsure of their futures that they are no longer willing to scrimp and save to pay for college. That makes LaRonda think maybe she should go into the military.

She told Carol, “I wanted to be the first to tell you I might not go to college, because I thought you’d be disappointed in me. I took the ASVAB test and got a 56. Is that good? My friends are going into the Army so I might do that too.” Carol reminded LaRonda that she would never be disappointed in her, that it was her life and she needs to make her own decisions, but that she should keep up her schoolwork and take the ACTs so she has options. She asked LaRonda, “What does your mom say?” LaRonda, “She says, ‘Whatever you think, is fine with me.’ “

When they talk about the future, LaRonda is not the only one who says, “I pray every day that I can get out of here and not end up like my mom, but I love my mom. It’s in God’s hands and whatever happens will be for the best.

Through no fault of their own, Rasheem and LaRonda have very uncertain futures.

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