Leadership in rural school districts is very personal, and often a force for progress or stagnation.
That’s among the early observations of Paul Hill, founder and former director of the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, who is leading a consortium that’s studying innovations in rural communities.
In his preliminary work, Hill said he’s found that some rural schools have made imaginative use of money and technology. And many rural districts are eager to guide their high-school students into dual enrollment programs, for college credit or to acquire vocational skills.
He’s also found that leadership can be an especially powerful force in a rural school district.
“If you look at Seattle (School District) — there are lots and lots of organized interest groups, and they cancel one another out; it’s a complex situation, but nobody dominates,” he said. “In rural areas, it’s possible to dominate.”
For example, an influential pastor or a farmer whose holdings form a large percentage of a school district’s tax base can have an outsized influence on district policies. A highly effective superintendent or principal can also make a big difference. But there’s also the risk that a single person in a leadership position can stymie progress, he said.
Hill said that on average, students in rural districts score a little better on standardized tests than students in urban districts, but don’t do as well as students in upper-income suburban districts. For their given level of attainment, they’re much less likely to go to college than their urban and suburban counterparts, and when they do go, they’re much less likely to stay there.
About 28 percent of Idaho’s public school students attend a rural school. Hill is also going to do some work in Washington rural schools; in this state, about 11 percent of public school students attend a rural school.
The study by the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho will conclude with a series of policy papers, organized in book form, that will come out in the spring. A magazine-like publication, aimed at general readership, will follow,
The work is being funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.