CREDIT: FERMIN LEAL/EDSOURCE TODAY
A rural school bus heads out to a campus to pick up students.

There is nothing more fundamental to a student’s success in school than his or her ability to be there. Students who are chronically absent are likely to lag in every measure of achievement from grades to test scores to graduation rates and college readiness.

Only in recent years has the California Department of Education begun tracking chronic absenteeism statewide and the early data show a large divide between urban and rural districts. Schools with extreme absenteeism, defined as having 30 percent or more of their students chronically absent, are far more prevalent in rural California.

We at EdSource see it as our responsibility to shine a light on issues like this and search for solutions as part of our mission to cover all aspects of education throughout California. We want to tell the stories of teachers, students and their families who are overcoming challenges to educate the state’s next generation.

Among our priorities for 2019 is a series of stories on the challenges facing rural school districts in California. In addition to chronic absenteeism, we are interested in issues ranging from suspensions and school climate to state financial support, college access and career options and graduation rates.

Regarding absenteeism, California Department of Education data show tiny Golden Feather Union Elementary School District in Butte County had a chronic absenteeism rate of 50 percent during the 2017-18 school year — which means that half of its students were absent for at least 15 days during the school year. This compares to a rate of 12 percent for Los Angeles Unified.

Unfortunately, these numbers come as no surprise to those who live in rural areas or study rural education. Carl Cohn — a former superintendent of both Long Beach Unified and San Diego Unified, two of the largest urban school districts in the state — highlighted the task facing rural districts when he wrote in EdSource last year about a visit to Modoc County, which is tucked in the far northeast corner of the state. Cohn was visiting the county as the then-executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a state agency created to provide support to school districts to improve education outcomes.

“We heard about the opioid crisis, the fact that there are no eligible foster parents in the entire county, that five county mental health positions remain unfilled, that the hardest possible job to fill is that of a school bus driver and that a youngster needs to drive three-plus hours to find a community college in a state that is pushing college for all,” Cohn wrote in his EdSource commentary.

What Cohn discovered on the ground in Modoc is not the exception. The decline of industries in recent decades (in Modoc’s case the timber industry) that were once the lifeblood of rural communities, have created challenges in rural areas for teachers and administrators working to give students a quality education.

“Our trip to Modoc County was a great learning experience for someone like me, who has spent more than four decades working in large urban school districts,” Cohn wrote. “I used to buy the conventional wisdom that urban educators faced the biggest challenges in doing their jobs. I’m not so sure about that anymore.”

Other reporting and research back up Cohn’s observations. Experts say rural areas may face problems that are often described as typically urban, such as poverty, drug abuse and crime. Geographic isolation often adds to the challenges faced by educators working in these school districts where resources are often limited.

Support from the national Education Writers Association and the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism will allow EdSource to expand its data-driven research to help us uncover new truths regarding the underlying causes of chronic absenteeism and other rural education disparities. The funding will also support our efforts to send journalists into the field to report from the local communities.

But we can’t do it alone. California is a big place and we are a small newsroom. Most importantly, we need eyes and ears on the ground — students, parents, teachers, administrators and community members whose real experiences can help us make a difference.

And we need researchers, policymakers and advocates to weigh in with their insights. We’ve already reported on the newly formed California Rural Ed Network of rural educators, which launched on Oct. 1 to attract new resources, share expertise and shift the attention of policy makers to schools outside urban and suburban California — many of them underfunded and serving a preponderance of low-income students.

We urge you to tell us about your school, your community and your efforts to help students succeed.

We have set up a special email address — rural@edsource.org — that you can use to send us your insights, links to relevant research, contacts for sources and story tips. With your help, we can give this story the attention it deserves and make sure it gets to the people who have the power to make a difference.

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  1. Michael Vogenthaler 3 months ago3 months ago

    Hi David, Thank you for your advocacy and I appreciate your efforts for wanting to tell our story. I work with schools throughout Kern County on college and career initiatives, and we face many challenges throughout the remote geographic regions in Kern County. I can cite two challenges that face every rural community. 1) Staff does not have equal access and equity to professional development (PD) and training. The consequence ultimately affects students and student outcomes … Read More

    Hi David,
    Thank you for your advocacy and I appreciate your efforts for wanting to tell our story. I work with schools throughout Kern County on college and career initiatives, and we face many challenges throughout the remote geographic regions in Kern County. I can cite two challenges that face every rural community. 1) Staff does not have equal access and equity to professional development (PD) and training. The consequence ultimately affects students and student outcomes because teachers in rural communities are not receiving access to high-quality professional development. There are a number of reasons that come to mind contributing to the equity and access to high quality PD. Rural school districts often have a very limited substitute teacher pool. Therefore, teachers may only attend training or PD opportunities if they can secure class coverage. If large numbers of teachers require training together, there is no way to accommodate that large number of staff missing one or consecutive days with adequate substitute teacher coverage. In addition, when teachers from rural areas attend specialized PD, the travel often requires a half-day or full-day drive, and in some cases, overnight stays. Districts are reluctant to support travel costs at $0.580 cents per mile, meals, and overnight stays, along with the registration costs to attend PD. Incurring these additional travel costs are a way of life in rural areas, but not necessarily the norm for everyone. 2) Students do not have equity and access to high quality career technical education programs and work-based learning opportunities. I support students and schools with gaining career readiness opportunities, having access to courses in high school that earn college credit, and aligning secondary to post-secondary guided pathways in the fifteen career technical education industry sectors. Rural school districts face many challenges offering courses that afford students dual enrollment, concurrent enrollment, or articulated college credits. Likewise, many rural communities do not have access to community colleges. There are many areas throughout Kern County that are not in proximity to attend a community college because there is not a satellite campus within their local region, and public transportation schedules do not accommodate travel to and from the main campus or satellite sites. Online learning also poses challenges because of access to computers and the internet. These conditions are far from being an anomaly, but rather, is their reality. In the career technical education world, exposing students to work-based learning (WBL) opportunities are a priority. In a high quality CTE program, students have access to local industry partnerships and students participate in a wide array of work-based learning experiences including work site tours, job shadowing, guest speakers, mentor-ships, internships, paid work experience, on-the-job training, and apprenticeships, to name a few. In rural communities, there are extremely limited resources locally that afford little to no WBL opportunities for their students. In addition, when students participate in WBL opportunities, the district is responsible to provide transportation to and from the worksites.
    There are many additional challenges facing rural schools, am I am glad that you are giving them the platform to share their stories. I look forward to reading your series and discovering solutions to even out the equity and access for all dilemma.
    Mike Vogenthaler
    Director, College and Career Initiatives
    Kern County Superintendent of Schools

  2. Michele Crncich Hodge 3 months ago3 months ago

    As a 24 year veteran of public schools, it is critical now more than ever, that we as a community reach out to our sister schools in other geographic areas of the state to lend support, discuss common areas of success and need and start to bridge the divide between the rural and urban communities of our state and nation. Democracy depends upon it.

  3. Tina Krenov 3 months ago3 months ago

    I truly appreciate your efforts to shine a light on the conditions the most isolated rural districts face in California, and I look forward to following the conversation!

  4. Amy Barker 4 months ago4 months ago

    Thanks for making this a priority. We greatly appreciate it and hope to share our successes and our challenges along the way. I currently support 25 of our small, rural school districts in Shasta County. Before coming to Shasta I was in Siskiyou County and served and supported 25 small, rural school districts. We love living in rural areas and want our children to have the same opportunities of other children in the this great state. … Read More

    Thanks for making this a priority. We greatly appreciate it and hope to share our successes and our challenges along the way.

    I currently support 25 of our small, rural school districts in Shasta County. Before coming to Shasta I was in Siskiyou County and served and supported 25 small, rural school districts. We love living in rural areas and want our children to have the same opportunities of other children in the this great state.

    I am hopeful that this coverage will shine a light that we are in need of a UC or CSU college in the “far northern” part of the state.

    (The writer is the executive director of administrator support for the Shasta County Office of Education.)