Oklahoma as a state reflects the rural-suburban-urban divide in some unique ways. Oklahoma has a system of small dependent school districts that only serve students K-8, or K-6. Students move from those dependent districts (usually only one school site, with a superintendent/principal) to a larger suburban district for secondary classes. 700,000 students attend urban or suburban schools, while more than 205,000 attend rural schools. Because of geography, Oklahoma has many more school districts than comparable states: 520 districts, with 111 being those small, dependent districts. Each legislative session, there is a tug-of-war between urban and rural legislators over possible consolidation of rural schools.
Because of ongoing school budget issues in the state, nearly 100 rural school districts have recently cut their school week from the traditional 5-day week to 4 days. One analysis pointed out that many of these districts border Texas and Arkansas, states who pay teachers considerably more than Oklahoma.
While the state as a whole has seen growth in student numbers, some rural districts are seeing declines in enrollment.
Add to the challenges listed above, is the change in demographics of students in rural schools: in 2003, 38% of rural students were nonwhite…recently, 47% of rural students were nonwhite.
All these specific challenges to rural districts points to the need for quality professional development, ongoing, embedded professional development. But, according to a new study by National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Support, rural educators in Oklahoma do not have access to the professional development needed to support student learning. Findings included the fact that teachers in rural schools were less likely to rely on the expertise of their colleagues for PD. The study concludes that the size of rural schools, and their geographical isolation both contribute to a ‘professional isolation’ of rural educators, and may make recruiting and retaining educators more problematic.
A quick, unscientific survey of educator in Oklahoma rural schools supports the study’s findings. Limited funding for travel, registration, and substitutes, focused PD for core subject areas, and awareness of PD opportunities were listed by educators as barriers faced by rural teachers.
Teachers also discussed some opportunities for rural teachers: membership and leadership in state associations, Oklahoma Council for Economic Education’s work, GearUp grants. There is federal funding through Title II, but districts have the option to consolidate these funds, and are often desperate for funding, and divert monies from PD. Some districts have ‘late start’ days in their schedules, which allows districts to participate in collaborative PD.