This story was originally published by The Hechinger Report.
On the long drive south, as the land on the horizon turned from mottled green to dusty brown, the college professor’s Subaru carried four cartons of doughnuts, two bags of fresh produce and a bin of children’s books.
All of it was destined for rural schools. It would be a drive of nearly four hours from the outskirts of Denver to a sparsely populated corner of Colorado where the flat skyline bleeds into Oklahoma, New Mexico and Kansas. It’s a trip that Robert Mitchell has been making once a week for five years, arriving on a Monday, sleeping over in the locally owned, $55-a-night Starlite Motel in Springfield, then turning the car north to return home two days later to his wife and son.
Unless you’ve been to Campo, and met the people in this town of 103 residents, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would endure that drive.
“The thing is,” Mitchell said, as his black sedan cruised down a long stretch of U.S. Route 287, “we are not just in the education business, we are in the relationship business, especially with rural education. You have to make the effort.”
Mitchell is an assistant professor who studies the issues that rural schools struggle with and trains aspiring teachers. He decided the best way to understand the needs of rural schools wasn’t by sitting in his office on a college campus, beaming in as a floating head on a video screen. He had a better idea: Show up with a box of doughnuts and try to make some friends. He kept coming back. Eventually the school superintendent, who doubles as a special education teacher and a substitute, asked if he’d be interested in doing more; the schools have been short-staffed for years. And that’s how the students at Campo got a college professor as one of their teachers.
More than 9.3 million students go to public schools in rural areas, more than the combined total of the nation’s 85 largest school districts. Rural students tend to do well in elementary school, but something changes as they get older. Although rural schools have made tremendous gains in high school graduation rates, these students are still less likely than their suburban and urban peers to successfully continue their education after high school. And while schools serving rural children have many strengths, such as intense community support and a nurturing atmosphere, they need to prepare their students to thrive in an economy that demands more than a high school education.
Rural schools are anything but homogeneous, ranging from the Black Belt in the South to tiny Alaska Native Villages. One thing they have in common is a dire shortage of teachers, a problem that becomes more consequential as students get older and need more advanced classes to prepare them for life after high school.
On the drive to Campo, Mitchell makes stops at several schools along the way. He pulls into a school parking lot, pops open his trunk and retrieves a slim, white box of fresh Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a slip of paper with his college’s logo, his contact information and an invitation to call and chat about any problem the school might be facing.
At 6-foot-3, Mitchell towers above the school secretaries, but with his sensible polo shirts and khaki pants, his disarming smile and a repertoire of goofy things to say, he sets people at ease.
“These are healthy ones — totally health food,” he says as he arrives without warning in a teachers’ lounge with the gift of sticky-sweet carbs.
Mitchell started working as an assistant professor of education at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, after a few other careers, including as a news reporter (“it wasn’t for me”), an insurance industry lobbyist (“the worst”), a public school teacher in the massive Los Angeles Unified School District (“difficult politics”) and an employee in the Colorado Department of Higher Education, where he first started interacting with rural schools like Campo’s. He’s still closely involved in public policy matters with the state, and often calls legislators to help them understand why their proposals might have unintended consequences. (“They wanted to require that all teachers be able to diagnose autism. This would have meant teachers would need medical degrees. That would not help the teacher shortage!”)
The extent of the teacher shortage in rural schools is difficult to overstate — a fact of life in these schools that predates the Covid-19 pandemic. In Colorado, for instance, there were about 380 open positions for educators in rural schools at the start of the 2021-2022 school year; by the end of the year more than half remained open, according to statistics from the state’s education department. And of the positions that were filled, many were staffed by people who do not have traditional training or are not considered qualified to work in the subject area they are teaching.
It’s hard to convince outsiders to come teach in places like Campo. The pay is low. And few people realize just how remote it is here. Nikki Johnson, the Campo superintendent, puts it this way in emails she sends to applicants from out of the area: “Please look at a map. We are in the Plains, not the mountains.” One applicant from Boston dropped out of consideration for a job after the superintendent explained that a car, not a bike, would be needed to survive, as the closest Walmart is about an hour away.
For the current school year, there were zero applications for Campo’s open math teacher job, so the district is doing a swap with the neighboring town of Vilas, which had zero applications for its open science-teacher job. By sharing math and science teachers, the districts can fill two gaps.
And sometimes, even when teachers are available who are technically qualified to teach, they may not have the expertise to offer the specialized courses that middle and high school students need to be competitive for college. In Campo School District No. Re-6, its official name, where there were 46 students in grades K-12 last year, there hasn’t been a math teacher who is “comfortable” teaching beyond algebra I for nearly six years, Johnson said.
Last year in Campo, a math teacher who was remote much of the time beamed in on a massive screen, her face as tall as a chalkboard. One day in spring, three middle-school boys followed along diligently as she loomed above them like a friendly Wizard of Oz. No adult was in the room to prod them to listen. Their independence and self-discipline, unusual in children this age, was admirable, but couldn’t answer questions or help them work out a problem the way a teacher in the room could.
As students get older, the problem of the missing higher-level math courses becomes acute.
Malcom Lovejoy, a high school senior who applied to elite colleges, taught himself precalculus with the help of some books and the free, online Khan Academy. Despite this impressive feat, to most far-off college admissions officers, he was just another transcript without a calculus credit. Usually calculus is an expectation, not exceptional, for selective colleges and universities. And while students at large high schools get in-person visits from college recruiters, kids in rural schools are lucky to get a handful of glossy postcards in the mail after they take national college aptitude exams.
In rural communities, most high school seniors who go on to college or trade school tend to choose places they’ve heard of, either because they are close by or because the students know someone who has gone there. There are a handful of schools in southeastern Colorado and neighboring Oklahoma at which Campo students matriculate year after year.
But Lovejoy, a soft-spoken student with sandy-brown hair, is attending Rice University in Houston this fall on a scholarship. It’s not something he would have considered before he started studying with Mitchell. He first signed up for a college-credit world history class with Mitchell, who is also employed by a nearby community college to teach the course. Mitchell saw promise in Lovejoy, and helped him apply to a program that links students of modest means with colleges and universities.
“He would have just never even known to apply for that scholarship,” said Johnson, who in addition to serving as Campo’s superintendent, working with special education students and substitute teaching, has also been scrambling to find qualified staff for the preschool.
In Campo, where it seems like everyone in the school takes on multiple jobs, Mitchell fit right in, helping with college applications and talking to students about their futures.
“Robert is someone I can count on to walk in the door and say, ‘How can I help?’”Johnson said.
On a hot day near the end of May, Lovejoy and three classmates stood for their graduation ceremony inside the cinnamon-scented, one-floor building that houses all grades, preschool to high school. Mitchell drove down for the day, as he tries to do for special events, even serving once as the keynote speaker at graduation.
Although the senior class was tiny, nearly every seat in the auditorium, which holds a full-sized basketball court, was occupied that day. The outsize crowd — former teachers, far-flung family members, alumni and people with no connection to the current class — was a testament to the community’s fierce commitment to its humble school. People drove for hours from the surrounding land, a vast place that seemed to contain nothing, to fill up a gym so they could watch children turn their tassels and say goodbye to high school.
On his last visit to southeastern Colorado before schools took leave for the summer, Mitchell stopped by the Vilas School District Re-5, which neighbors the Campo district and is also small. Unlike some other states, Colorado has many small rural districts (111 had fewer than 1,000 students in fall 2020) because state lawmakers haven’t forced consolidations that could save money. Like most people, rural Coloradans tend to like the community connection of their hometown schools.
“You can almost consider us like modern one-room schoolhouses,” said Corey Doss, the Vilas superintendent. “We still have our own identities.”
In Vilas, a town of 109 people, the school is in the midst of a renovation project, funded in large part by taxes collected on the state’s marijuana industry. The 93-year-old building has been gutted, wires strewn about, front doors yawning open for crews to work. It’s a good time to renovate, with the state footing a large chunk of the bill. It’s also the worst time to renovate, because the nation’s supply chain issues have made construction materials expensive and hard to come by. As a result, the Vilas project is behind schedule, and no one is certain when it will be done.
In the meantime, the 75 students going to school on the Vilas campus study inside the gym, which is housed in a Quonset hut, and an adjacent whitewashed cinder block building with blue trim. It’s not uncommon for students to be displaced during renovations like this. But in places with more money, school leaders rent specially outfitted classroom trailers.
As Mitchell walks out of the elementary-school area, two teachers ask him to go into the gym, where older students are giving presentations on the businesses they dreamed up for an end-of-year project; more adults are needed to ask them questions about their work. Each student stands before a large poster-board presentation, in a setup reminiscent of a science fair. Mitchell walks through the area, only to be stopped again.
A staff member is holding a stack of carefully folded letters, which Mitchell had dropped off earlier. They describe Mitchell’s new college-credit class in Vilas. He’s expanding his work for 2022-23, so that he’ll teach a class at Campo one day and another at Vilas the next day. He asked teachers to give the letters to students to invite them to join. The gesture is meant to suggest something special — an invitation.
“I’ve had some questions about this,” the staffer asks. “Will the students have to write papers this class?” Writing college-level papers is something that Mitchell has noticed students don’t seem to particularly enjoy.
“Yes,” Mitchell responds, before quickly adding the point he hoped would keep them interested. “But I care the most about the process, not the final product. Tell them I will help.”
And that’s just what he did. In mid-August, Mitchell sat in a classroom created with some temporary walls in Vilas and greeted three students who had decided to try something new: a world history class with a college professor they’d never met in a place where everyone knows their names.
This story about rural education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. The reporting was supported by the Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellowship at the University of Michigan.