BETHANY, Mo. — The South Harrison County R-II School District doesn’t have a problem with dwindling enrollment like many rural districts, said Superintendent Don Wilburn.
Increased enrollment has sparked the need for a new middle school addition to the high school. Funding is a problem that South Harrison shares with other school districts, both small and large.
Three times, South Harrison has tried and failed to get a bond passed that would allow it to build a 31,160-square-foot addition onto the high school in Bethany. They went to the community for solutions.
“There was a consensus throughout that everybody recognizes there is a problem now; there are different ideas on a solution,” Mr. Wilburn said.
Rural school districts feel the financial constraints of the economy like any other district. They have many of the same assessment measures and other state and federal requirements as their larger counterparts.
But rural schools have both benefits and problems that only other districts their size can understand.
According to the National Research Center on Rural Education, more than 40 percent of all schools in America are in rural areas. They are often the largest employers in their communities and the major consumers for the local businesses.
Student achievement is usually higher in smaller districts. There also is more parental involvement.
On the flip side, however, the smaller schools have problems with qualified teacher retention and the availability of a variety of courses and curriculum.
Chris Fine, superintendent of the Lathrop R-II School District, said Spanish is the only foreign language they are able to offer. With a kindergarten through 12th-grade enrollment, the school isn’t able to offer soccer, lacrosse or similar sports.
“We just don’t have the kids. If there was something a bigger school offered that we would want, it would be a bigger variety of programs and activities,” Mr. Fine said.
He added that small schools still have drug issues like their big-city counterparts. And surprisingly, the graduation rates are about the same.
Lathrop has an 85 percent graduation rate. In 2011, the St. Joseph School District graduated 89.6 percent of its students, compared to 86.7 percent statewide.
“That’s busting a stereotype that at a rural school, everybody graduates, everybody goes to school,” Mr. Fine said.
At the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, Lathrop went to a four-day school week. At first, the move was met with lots of apprehension, Mr. Fine said, as some thought grades would fall and teen pregnancies and drug use would rise. But that has not necessarily been the case.
“On that first year of four-day, we definitely did no better, and there could be some argument for scores being down a little bit,” he said. “This year, test scores say we definitely did better in six out of seven areas of comm arts.”
The district didn’t go into the four-day week thinking it would raise test scores. It was an effort to save money.
“That was really our main drive at the start,” Mr. Fine said. “It worked very well, and the cost savings are probably right at what they projected, a little over one and a half percent.”
Mr. Wilburn said the South Harrison district isn’t at the point yet where it’s ready to put the bond issue back on the ballot. The plan is to work with different community groups and members of the opposition and come up with a consensus.
But overall, he doesn’t see much difference in the larger and smaller school districts in Northwest Missouri.
“Our region tends to do better than a lot of others in the state,” he said. “I think that’s just from the parenting aspect of education being important in Northwest Missouri.”