A national report released today emphasizes that rural school districts — not just urban school districts — can also have great challenges when it comes to meeting the requirements of the federal mandate No Child Left Behind.

Myron Mickelson, assistant superintendent for Sevier School District in central Utah, agrees with the concept. "Our challenges may be a little more unique," he said.

The Center on Education Policy, an independent nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., commissioned the report.

CEP President Jack Jennings said the study is meant to shed light on rural issues because it seems urban school districts have gotten a lot of attention in light of NCLB. "Rural districts do have problems with NCLB," Jennings said. "But if they suffer, they suffer quietly."

The study's findings point to rural districts experiencing an achievement gap, as well as challenges with students in poverty and special needs students. Rural districts don't appear to have the racial or ethnic issues of urban districts, Jennings said.

Another issue is the rural districts' smaller enrollment. One student doing poorly in NCLB out of a 500-student school is different than one student failing in a 50-student school. Smaller schools can give students more personal attention, however, Jennings said. "It's a double-edged sword," he said.

Administrators in Utah's rural districts say that while national studies can give an overall picture, specific details can vary depending on area and circumstances.

Those districts spotlighted in the CEP study are in Minnesota, Wyoming, New York, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Vermont.

Challenges Utah's rural districts are experiencing include a low tax base and difficulties recruiting and retaining teachers, said Glen Taylor, executive director of Central Utah Educational Services. CUES is based in Richfield and represents seven rural school districts: Tintic, Juab, North Sanpete, South Sanpete, Sevier, Piute and Wayne.

Some of the districts have low enrollment, such as Tintic with 240 students, according to the Oct. 1, 2007, count. This compares to larger urban school districts such as Jordan, with 80,190 students, according to state data.

Buildings and facilities tend to be older in rural districts because of the number of federal lands in rural areas that are tax exempt. "There just isn't the same tax base as in urban districts," Taylor said.

Educator expertise in course offerings can be limited in rural districts. For example, a rural teacher may be instructing English, science and band, requiring more preparation work and also resulting in lower specialization. This would compare to an educator in an extremely urban area, who would teach geometry each hour every day, Taylor said.

Students in rural districts also may not have opportunities to take higher level courses such as trigonometry. Some rural districts may offer the class only every other year because of limited resources. However, distance learning has helped greatly in this area, Taylor said.

Larry Abplanalp, assistant superintendent at Duchesne School District in northeastern Utah, says it is challenging for rural districts that NCLB is requiring highly qualified teachers. "We are really under the gun," Abplanalp said.

He also points to the fact rural districts generally have a difficult time recruiting specialists for special needs children.

Taylor said other rural district challenges include difficulty getting substitute teachers and a higher turnover of teachers, he said.

Abplanalp says Duchesne district does have a hard time getting teachers to live and work in the area.

"Some like the rural life. They like to hunt and fish. And we do have excellent teachers," he said. "We just don't have the malls and social life that are the lure to the urban areas."


E-mail: astewart@desnews.com