Richard Bryant is principal of the F.S. Ervin Elementary School in Pine Hill, Alabama, one of the ten best rural elementary schools in the state. Every child at the school qualifies for a free or reduced price lunch. Bryant began working for the schools as a bus driver in the early 1970s.

[imgcontainer right] [img:Ervin.jpg] Richard Bryant is principal of the F.S. Ervin Elementary School in Pine Hill, Alabama, one of the ten best rural elementary schools in the state. Every child at the school qualifies for a free or reduced price lunch. Bryant began working for the schools as a bus driver in the early 1970s. [/imgcontainer]

Three Alabamians went looking for the best of that state’s rural schools. They drove more than 10,000 miles, conducted more than 300 interviews and tested hundreds of teachers. “We did not expect to find Lake Wobegon where Garrison Keillor tells us ‘all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average,’” they wrote. 

And they didn’t. But Gerald Carter, Larry Lee and Owen Sweatt did find ten outstanding rural schools that were thriving in small communities despite troubled economic times. The three were working with the Center for Rural Alabama and they recently put their findings in a report, “Lessons Learned From Rural Schools.” 

“A perfect storm — fueled by the outmigration of young adults and rising poverty and strengthened by a declining economy and loss of jobs — swirls across rural Alabama,” the report begins. “In its wake lie communities struggling not only to maintain a certain standard of living, but just to exist.” Ten years ago, 54.2 percent of Alabama’s rural students qualified for a free school lunch. Today that has risen to 61.9 percent. The number of rural schools where 90 percent of the students are poor enough to qualify for a free lunch has jumped from 60 to 78.

Carter, Lee and Sweatt combed through this economically troubled landscape to find 10 elementary schools that were succeeding. Their test scores had to be well above the state average. They couldn’t be economic outliers, so the researchers looked for schools that had at least 65 percent of their students eligible for a free lunch. And they wanted schools that were dispersed around the state.

[imgcontainer] [img:Calcedeaver.jpg] These schools have “something in the air,” according to Larry Lee. At the Calcedeaver Elementary School, it’s dancing. The school is 80% Native American and a small dance team started a few years ago now has more than 100 members and the school holds a Native American Culture Festival each November. [/imgcontainer]

The ten schools they found weren’t  “bucolic little hamlets safe from the perils of today’s society,” the three wrote. “At every school the principal told us that at least 50 percent of all students come from single-parent homes.”

And in an already poor state, the average income in the communities where these ten schools were located, the median household income was only 78 percent of the Alabama average — or only 63 percent of the U.S. average.[imgcontainer left] [img:report.jpg]The report on what makes a good rural school — at least in Alabama. [/imgcontainer]

The entire report is well worth reading. It can be found here. Those who would like a hard copy of the report can contact Larry Lee at (And the ten rural Alabama schools are listed at the end of this story.)

There were four points, however, that struck me in reading about these outstanding schools.

1. These are community schools. “In the opinion of many education leaders, what happens outside the classroom in the form of ‘community involvement’ may be as important as what goes on in the classroom,” writes Larry Lee. And he finds that in these good rural schools, it’s hard to find the line that divides community from school. “Education goes beyond the walls of instruction and much of our school success is determined by the community’s ownership.” 

In these successful community schools, local newspaper editors visit and write about schools regularly. The community raises money for schools. Local institutions cooperate with the schools. For example, Calcedeaver Elementary uses the gym at the nearby Aldersgate United Methodist Church for plays, pageants and PTO meetings. In Pine Hill, Alabama, the mayor once served on the school board.

Parents trust the schools because the schools have earned that trust. “If the parent trusts the school and understands that you are truly doing all you can to help their child, then they are far more likely to support you when there is a discipline issue,” said John Kirby, principal at Dutton Elementary.

2. “There is something in the air” in these good schools. For one thing, these schools are clean. That doesn’t mean they are new, because most of these ten good schools are not. The oldest was built in 1924; the newest in 1994. They are all kept neat and tidy, Larry Lee found.

More than just cleanliness, however, these schools have a feel. There’s something special going on there — as Lee writes, “there is something in the air.”[imgcontainer right] [img:Harlanschool.jpg] The Harlan Elementary School in Lockhart, Alabama, had the oldest building in the group. This school was built in 1924. [/imgcontainer]

Principal Jacqui James has turned her Southern Choctaw Elementary into a living art museum. She’s transformed one hallway into a gallery, featuring prints donated from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and museums in Birmingham and Mobile. Dutton Elementary convinced an artist to turn the inside of the school into its own community. The entrance to the boys’ restroom is painted to resemble a barbershop, for example. The cafeteria is painted as the “Dutton Diner” and the teachers’ mailroom is made to look like the U.S. Post office.

These schools are creative. Every year F. S. Ervin Elementary in Pine Hill puts on a parade. Why? “We started six years ago,” said principal Richard Bryant, “because our kids rarely get to see a parade. It is 20 miles to go to see a parade at Wilcox Central High School in Camden and most of our students don’t get to go.”

Bryant rounded up high school bands, some cowboys, fire trucks and anybody else that wanted to be in the parade. The 2008 parade, according to Larry Lee, had six marching bands!

Calcedeaver Elementary started a dance team in 2001 with five students. The school is in a Choctaw community and 80 percent of the students are Native American. Today, the dance team has more than 100 members.

3. The best teachers “have a visceral understanding of what it’s like to live in a rural community.” The researchers interviewed teachers at each school and they found that at these successful schools, teachers understood the children because they understood the rural life. “It appears that a critical factor in the success of these 10 schools is that a majority of teachers grew up in the area in which they teach, or one very similar, and understand the local culture,” wrote Gerald Carter.

4. Teachers will resist change. The researchers gave ten teachers at each school a Myers Briggs personality indicator examination. They found that teachers are, by nature, introverts, even if they can become extroverted in leading a class. And they found that teachers’ personalities were of the type that resisted change. 

Carter, Lee and Sweatt said there some clear conclusions to be drawn from their study. For one, rural Alabama is not producing enough teachers. Of the 1,595 senior education students in 14 of the state’s schools of education, 542 come from rural Alabama. That’s not enough to fill the need in the state’s rural schools.

The report ends with descriptions of each of the ten rural schools. This is heart-warming reading. At Fruithurst Elementary, the school principal noticed that one teacher’s students consistently did better on the state’s math test. So the rest of the school copied that teacher’s program and the entire school advanced.

At W.S. Harlan Elementary in Lockhart, 18 of the 26 faculty members graduated from the county’s high school. In Arley, the Women’s Club led a campaign to construct a library, the only building in town that has an elevator. The Civitan Club in Phil Campbell rewards outstanding students with a pizza lunch in the cafeteria. 

And what makes Gilbertown’s Southern Choctaw Elementary special? “I believe in the power of love,” says principal Jacqui James.


Editor’s Note: Here are the ten Alabama schools:  Calcedeaver Elementary in Mobile County; Dutton Elementary in Jackson County; F. S. Ervin in Wilcox County; Fruithurst Elementary in Cleburne County; W. S. Harlan in Covington County; Huxford Elementary in Escambia County; Meek Elementary in Winston County; Phil Campbell Elementary in Franklin County; Southern Choctaw Elementary in Choctaw County; and Albert Turner, Sr. Elementary in Perry County.

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