Teacher, Quitman County, Mississippi School District
The statistics paint a picture of what rural education looks like in smallish districts near tiny towns and those in virtual isolation far from most conveniences of everyday metropolitan life like a grocery store or hospital or reliable internet.
In the great variety of places that make up rural America, per-pupil funding may seem impossibly low in comparison to more densely populated communities. However, the real cost of educating students may be greater due to population flight caused by a pervasive lack of opportunity. Unemployment, lower wages and a paucity of basic resources from housing to entertainment translate to declining enrollment. Those same conditions mean districts may have difficulty hiring teachers and getting them to stay. Still, student achievement is improving, albeit slowly and maybe not much at all for students of color. High school graduation rates are generally better than in cities but fewer students, and even fewer minority students, go to college.
These outcomes create a sense of the rural education landscape that is indeed rugged. But it isn’t all that bleak, for behind the picture there’s new thinking and ideas and also hope. The latter has always been, most especially within the millions of students who live and go to school in rural communities and their teachers. It’s the teachers who persistently see the possibility of education, no matter what the circumstances.
Betty Figgs, at 62, was ready to retire after teaching first grade for 16 years. Then her principal asked her to teach third grade in the only elementary school in the Quitman County, Mississippi School District. Figgs is now in her second year with third-graders. The state’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act (reading gate bill) that became law in 2014 means Figgs is charged with prepping her students for the critical reading assessment that helps assure every student meets grade-level reading standards by the end of third grade.
The percentage of third-graders passing the initial reading test that is required for promotion has increased from 85 percent to 93.2 percent. This year, students will need to score higher than the minimum achievement level to move on to fourth grade. Understandably, the pressures of teaching these students can be daunting but “Ms. B,” as her students call her, “put that aside and came to third grade.”
Figgs learned the new curriculum and has leaned on the support of her team members and school leadership. There are what seem extraordinary circumstances that shape how students learn and perform on the reading gate. Most of her students this year are reading below grade level, some by as much as two to three years. Encouraging those students — and their parents — is one of the greatest challenges she faces. Figgs said, “A lot of our children are coming to us this year saying what they can’t do, and they haven’t even tried yet.”
“I know how hard it is down here in the Delta. They don’t have many things, one store — no nothing — but that doesn’t dictate what you can make out of your life just because of where you are now. And we try to get them to see that.”
She knows that helping students get to where they need to be is a process that will likely take the better part of the school year, sometimes several years. Figgs tells of a 10-year-old boy whom she taught in first grade and is presently in her third-grade class. He has struggled in his education journey, one marked by poor attendance. At the start of this school year, he was unable to ready fluently. “When he got here this year, I asked his mom to make sure he would be at school every day. As long as he comes to school, we can teach him how to read,” Figgs said.
Her outreach and personalized approach to teaching has realized enormous progress for this student. For the first time, he was able to read aloud on his own. Figgs recorded the event to share with the boy’s mother as she’d never heard him read.
“I know how hard it is down here in the Delta,” Figgs said. “They don’t have many things, one store — no nothing — but that doesn’t dictate what you can make out of your life just because of where you are now. And we try to get them to see that.”
This article is part of a bigger feature story on education opportunity in rural America. Read the feature article here.
Rural: Education in Mississippi’s Delta
Historically, Mississippi hovers at the bottom of national rankings for education quality and student achievement…