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Making A Classroom, And Prioritizing Electives: Practical Challenges For Rural Texas Schools

Heather Claborn/KACU
Kelley Mersinger works one-on-one with one of her dyslexia intervention students.

From Texas Standard:

Rural school districts are far away from the bustle of Texas cities and suburbs. But with those wide open spaces come fewer students – and limited access to services and supplies they need. And all that can add up.

Texas school districts make it work through extra planning, and by making tough choices.

Goldthwaite Independent School District educates 553 students. They come from the town – population 1,800 – and surrounding rural communities like Mullin, Priddy, and Star.

Erin Berg teaches music and art at Goldthwaite’s elementary school. When she and her husband started looking for a place to raise their family, they fell in love with Goldthwaite.

“I love it,” Berg says, “because I feel the kids get more individual attention here.”

That’s something Berg didn’t have much of. The year she graduated from Plano East Senior High, she was part of the largest graduating class in the country. But teaching in Goldthwaite comes with its own challenges. Berg points to shopping for supplies.

“Until the Hobby Lobby opened in Brownwood, the closest Hobby Lobby was an hour and-a-half away and so I have to really plan ahead with art supplies,” Berg says. “Or I’ll call my mom in Dallas and be like, ‘Ship it to me!’ or of course use Amazon or something like that.”

And she says that takes a lot more planning. Paints and pencils in hand, Berg can get to teaching. Since Goldthwaite has fewer students than its urban counterparts, class sizes are smaller. But there are also fewer teachers to develop electives, athletics and extracurricular activities.

“I love art and I teach art,” Berg says. “But I never took an art class in high school because the way the schedule worked you could only have one elective.”

While Goldthwaite doesn’t have enough students for a volleyball team and several teachers said they wished the district had a student choir, Berg says the district does the best it can to offer students options.

“We may not have as many choices but we have a music program, we have different sports programs,” she says. “If they want to be in band there’s opportunities to be in theater as well and art – you can do both.”

And it’s not just the electives. Don Rogers, executive director of Texas Rural Education Association, says rural schools struggle to meet the needs of advanced learners.

“If you look at SAT scores, rural schools tend to not do as well on those areas that require an advanced instruction,” Rogers says. “We used to say on the basic test scores, our rural kids did as well as the suburban schools. But when you come to an advanced curriculum, then not quite as well because a lack of qualified teachers and enough kids to provide for a class.”

Big picture, Rogers says – for these schools it all comes down to money.

“It costs more to be rural.” Rogers stresses, “When they acquire technology, when they acquire services and things like that, they have to pay more for it.”

That’s why small town educators across Texas are keeping a close eye on the state legislature. Dennis Bonnen, Texas’ new House speaker, says education funding is his top priority. Don Rogers and his group applaud calls for the state to pick up a greater share of school funding, but they worry that other proposed changes to the school funding formula would cost rural schools as much as a million dollars per budget cycle.

Another challenge: When school districts need to replace crumbling, old buildings they have to get local voters to approve bond initiatives.

Voters in the Goldthwaite district approved the nearly $8 million bond for a new elementary building in 2013, and another $15.5 million in 2017, for construction currently underway at the high school.

DeeDee Wright is not only the principal of Goldthwaite Elementary School – she helped design the building. During a tour of the new facility she showed off the technology lab and large library. But she was especially proud of the cafetorium and gymnasium.

Credit Heather Claborn
The entire student body at Goldthwaite Elementary gather each morning in the cafetorium for announcements, character lessons and to say their pledges.

“This is our community building!” Wright says. “We have a stage, so we have a lot of performances. And it’s not just about our elementary school. Our middle school one act play performs. Our community theater group will come and use this. We have a fantastic gym, which we have little dribblers tournaments. So everybody gets a chance to use this facility.”

DeeDee Wright is grateful to voters, and says Goldthwaite ISD is fortunate to have all this. Not all rural communities can invest in new building projects for their schools.

And year to year, rural property tax dollars don’t give administrators much extra operating cash.

All school districts have to make choices. Goldthwaite prioritizes dyslexia intervention. Its focus is unique not only for a rural district, but even compared to large districts with more money and resources. Goldthwaite’s four dyslexia intervention teachers meet with each of their students for 45 minutes, four times a week.

Kelley Mersinger has been teaching Goldthwaite’s students with dyslexia for the past five years. She laughs as she says, “Our principal works – I would say 24/7 sometimes.”

Mersinger admires Wright's dedication to their dyslexia program. "She could use an assistant principal very badly" says Mersinger. "And yet, instead of getting an AP, she hired an extra dyslexia teacher this past year to make things work. I think, in our district, we'll (happily) go without in order to fund that.”

It’s a common experience for rural districts statewide. These administrators, teachers and their proponents, hope lawmakers in Austin come up with a funding plan that helps small schools like Goldthwaite “go without” a little less.

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