Most Schools in the South Fail to Qualify as Rural
ADEL, Ore. (AP) — There was a sense of relief from Colorado to California after the Education Department announced that teachers in rural schools would have more time to meet strict federal qualifications.
But in the South, there was confusion. Although the region is home to hundreds of the country's most rural and poor areas, few schools there were granted the same reprieve.
Under federal requirements, all teachers must be "highly qualified" in every subject they teach, with a bachelor's degree or state certification in the topic.
The mandates are part of the No Child Left Behind Act, a centerpiece of the Bush administration's education policy.
"There are a lot of people that are very frustrated that for reasons that are arbitrary, their schools are not qualified," said Robin Lambert, a Kentucky-based researcher for the Rural Education and Community Trust, a nonprofit that studies rural issues. "There are schools that are small, isolated and poor, but they don't qualify."
Small school districts in the rural West and Great Plains, where educators often teach several subjects to several grades, had been struggling with the requirement until Western lawmakers successfully lobbied on their behalf.
In March, it was announced that rural teachers would be allowed an extra year to prove that they met the "highly qualified" threshold, until 2007. New teachers would get three years from the date of their hire.
But outside the West and the Great Plains, far fewer schools will benefit from the changes.
That's because the federal government used criteria favoring small, self-contained districts such as those in the West, instead of countywide districts such as those in the South.
Collectively, that makes districts throughout the South too large to get the break extended to rural teachers, which the federal government made available only to schools that are enrolled in the Small Rural School Achievement program.
That program — which gives extra money to districts with fewer than 600 students in communities with fewer than 2,500 people — serves about 5,000 schools, mostly in the West and the Midwest.
The upshot is that although 440 districts in Nebraska, 375 districts in Montana and 80 districts in Oregon qualified for the extra time, no districts in South Carolina or Alabama qualified. Only one district each qualified in Florida and West Virginia.
Janice Poda, who directs teacher quality for South Carolina's education department, said it came as a shock to learn that none of the schools in her state were being classified as rural.
"It has kind of become a joke," she said.
The change has been good news for Larry Ferguson, who teaches four subjects to five grades at the tiny Adel middle school in south-central Oregon, often staying just two pages ahead of his students.
"You've got the same kids for five years, so you can't repeat anything — you've got to come up with new stuff," Mr. Ferguson said. "It's as much an education for me as anything."
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