The town of Walton, Kan., cuts a modest swath through a rich carpet of winter wheat that stretches in green and amber patches toward the Flint Hills. … Along with U.S. 50, another vital artery, the railroad is a reminder that no matter how quiet its main street or stark the horizon, tiny Walton, population 235, is very much connected to the wider world.
Another reminder is a very special elementary school.
The Walton 21st Century Rural Life Center, which bursts out of a low-rise brick building where the town meets the fields, began as the Walton School in 1934 and for years followed the traditional rural model: it educated students from kindergarten through the 12th grade and graduated classes that were often no bigger than 20. As is so often the case in rural communities, the school was a powerful magnet for civic life. But then hard times hit Harvey County. As economic opportunities declined, young people moved out, leaving the school with more and more empty desks. Year after year, the tiny school survived efforts to close it, until 2005 when the Newton School District, to which it is attached, seemed ready to shutter it for good.
Walton’s remaining 70 students were welcomed to Newton’s in-town schools. But as many local people saw it, the Walton school was the only thing standing between their community and a future as a ghost town. So in 2007, inspired by Newton’s then-superintendent, and with a grant from the federal government, the district reconstituted Walton as a K-4 charter school with a novel curriculum of hands-on learning that is entirely focused on agriculture. One of only two such elementary schools in the country, Walton, which now has 170 students (it pulls from outside the district), is considered an unqualified success. It scores in the top 5 percent on the state’s standardized achievement tests; it has been celebrated by the U.S. Department of Education; and educators come from across the country to learn its secrets. The school is so popular that its waiting list, now at 40, extends as far out as 2015. Some parents try to register their children while they are still in the womb.
Educational achievement in rural America is one of the country’s great overlooked challenges. Rural students achieve below the U.S. average on national tests, and high school dropout rates are higher and college attendance lower than they are in cities and suburbs. When the U.S. Department of Education asks low-achieving schools to be turned around, rural educators usually say they lack options: schools in many communities can’t be closed because there are no other choices, and populations are too thin to support charter schools. But the Walton Rural Life Center, serving a population that has many of these problems, shows that there is genuine promise for rural charter schools – if, like Walton, they have the will and the imagination to try new approaches and to take advantage of the unique strengths of their communities. …
SUCCESS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
There are other throwbacks here to the one-room schoolhouses that once dotted the Plains states. Because of high demand, three of Walton’s classes are split, meaning one teacher has to teach a class with students of two different grades. This arrangement can be hard on the teachers, but Vogt says, “I hate turning away kids.” Besides, she says, “It’s wonderful to see the older kids helping the younger kids, helping them with vocabulary and things like that.” In a further departure from the modern routine, students at Walton stay in the same homeroom from kindergarten through fourth grade. That means that they will always have at least one teacher who watches them grow, and will spend time every day with children of other ages. The homeroom teacher serves as an extra parent, the classmates as a sort of extended family. One frequently asked question: “What’s up at home?”
One striking thing about Walton is how many students with learning disabilities it attracts. It has counted as many as 25 percent of students with disorders like Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, compared to about 13 percent for the district overall. The school didn’t set out to serve this population particularly, and Vogt said that she and the teachers often didn’t know students had special needs until after they showed up; in some cases, she says, parents didn’t disclose the information – such was their desire to place their children at a school so well-equipped to help them. And who could blame them, Vogt asks. Children with disabilities tend to be tactile, or kinesthetic, learners; they need to move around and touch things for a lesson to sink in. Doing projects allows them to be active, as well as to demonstrate success on small tasks. The school’s open environment benefits these children, as well. Special needs kids are routinely pulled out of class for extra help, and some can be scarred by the process. But at Walton,all the students are in and out of their classrooms all the time. “They know they have a disability,” says Hein, “but there is not the same stigma here.”
The high concentration of special needs students initially caused some teachers to worry that Walton would be perceived as a last resort for students who couldn’t succeed elsewhere. And some parents of mainstream pupils feared the bar for their kids would be lowered. Vogt, who has a background in special education, insists that success for special needs kids hasn’t come at the expense of others. On the contrary, she says, what is good for these children happens to serve mainstream students just as well, if not better. While hands-on projects clearly engage tactile learners, they also engage students who are auditory learners, who can talk about what they are doing, and visual learners who can see creations take shape. Moreover, students who are quick studies can act as leaders for children who are slower to catch on. Hein says, “They can work with a group and find their strength and take the lead.” Still, Vogt concedes that the increase in special needs students is an issue “that is going to have to be addressed.”
REALITIES OF RURAL CHARTERS
As a charter school in a rural community, Walton stands apart in another essential way.
Overall, one in four students in the U.S. attends a rural school, and contrary to popular assumptions, K-12 enrollment in rural areas is growing. … Although the population of rural America skews old, and while 30- to 50-year-olds are leaving, rural areas have seen an influx of young parents, including immigrants and minorities, who are attracted by jobs in agriculture and energy. The migration has caused a generational divide. The rural population is also increasingly poor. “The reality is that how we define ‘rural’ is quite complicated,” says Robert Mahaffey of the Rural School and Community Trust, a non-profit that works to improve rural education. “The public is fixated on two stereotypes, one the idyllic Norman-Rockwell view, which tends to be middle class and predominantly white. The other is the abject, multi-generational illiterate unemployed people of color in the South or whites in Appalachia. The reality is more complex.”
Like Walton, where 40 percent of students qualify for the federal reduced-price lunch program, rural communities are often afflicted with problems – substance abuse, poverty, unemployment, teen pregnancy — that are as bad or more severe than those that trouble the inner cities. And they have special problems of their own. The remoteness of many communities makes teacher recruitment and retention a perennial problem – just one reason why the “turnaround” model under the federal government’s School Improvement Grant program (in which failing schools start over with a largely new staff) often doesn’t work. At the same time, the smallest rural districts can be hurt by shrinking tax bases and a federal Title I funding formula that often has the effect of favoring districts with larger, raw numbers of poor kids over districts with larger percentages of them.
These and other conditions have long frustrated efforts to improve achievement. Although rural areas have attained historically high levels of education, one in four rural residents still fails to graduate from high school, and only 17 percent of adults over age 25 have college degrees – half the percentage of urban areas.
Advocates for the 10 million children who attend rural schools note that the local community is often the best resource for these students. Thus they have called for programs that make it easier for communities to “grow their own” teachers rather than watching promising graduates leave their hometowns for other places. And they say it should be easier than it often is to put knowledgeable community members in the classrooms of understaffed schools under the supervision of highly qualified teachers. Many also point to the benefits of pulling other community services under one roof. But “community services” implies more than services that happen outside the school setting, notes Doris Terry Williams in a policy brief for the Rural Trust. “It implies a uniqueness about a place and the people who live there.”
Opening a charter school, under the right circumstances, could be one option for boosting achievement in rural areas. As is the case at Walton, the greater autonomy offered by a charter would make it easier for schools to take advantage of their community’s unique history, culture, and economy. Unlike regular district schools, charters have the freedom to introduce novel curricula, relax hiring restrictions, and tailor professional development to their own needs. And yet Walton is among just 37 charter schools in Kansas, and in 2010, the last year for which figures are available, it was among just 785 rural charter schools in the nation — 16 percent of the U.S. total. One reason for the small numbers, charter advocates say, is that the ills of rural schools have long been overshadowed by the problems of their urban peers. The growth of rural charters has also been stunted by state laws that don’t allow for them. The state of Vermont, for instance, has no charter law, even though more than half of its public school students attend rural schools.
Even when state laws do allow for charter schools, building support for them can be particularly difficult in rural communities. As researchers David Stuit and Sy Doan note in a brief for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, many of the prominent citizens in tightly knit communities are school district employees or board members who may see charters as undermining their past efforts to find efficiencies through school consolidation. Founders of charter schools must be willing to challenge the establishment, and often their neighbors and friends.
Scott Shirey, the director of the KIPP Delta schools in rural Helena, Ark., suggests that one other reason the charter movement has yet to catch on in rural areas is residents’ limited exposure to other possibilities. “In a small rural community where there isn’t choice, and where there is less variance in the quality of education, the problems aren’t as visible,” Shirey told the National Charter School Resource Center. “If you have a wealthy suburban school up the block and your child’s getting a lousy education, I think you feel the burn a little faster.” Even when the demand is there, rural charter schools face the same problems that regular rural schools do. There are often no universities nearby from which to recruit staff, no public transportation, few vendors to produce school lunches, and few places nearby for enriching field trips.
Walton suffers from many of the problems that afflict rural school districts. So how has it managed to overcome them? For one thing, it has a geographical advantage: although big-city visitors may consider Walton the very definition of “boondocks,” the town is just 25 miles from the outskirts of Wichita. That makes Walton what the education department classifies as rural “fringe,” rather than “isolated” or “remote.” Second, it is not just the project-based, agricultural model that makes Walton work; it is all the other things that make hands-on, themed learning possible: integrating 21st century tools and skills and a shared leadership in which all stakeholders have clear roles and responsibilities. But beyond these factors, Walton succeeds because it is not just project-based, but place-based. Just as rural advocates envision for other communities, the Walton schools use the whole town as a laboratory and a resource, and the community, in turn, benefits from the vitality of the school.
One prominent member of that community is Evan Johnson, a former science teacher and principal at Walton who now serves as the town’s part-time mayor. Johnson first came to the school in 1959, when the graduation class numbered about 50. Now 75, he is back in the classroom, this time as a volunteer. He delights children with stories from the days when Walton had two grocery stores, several implement dealers and a depot that caught mailbags tossed out of speeding trains. But he is beloved mainly for his “Tool of the Week” talks. From his vast collection of antique gadgets, he pulls out potato planters, levels, and hoes – anything that might enliven a lesson about physics, chemistry, or math. (Sample question: Why would you use a wood-handled monkey wrench? Answer: it’s warmer than steel.)
Johnson is among the many town residents who are helping teach Walton students by opening their businesses and farms. Even residents who no longer have children at the school willingly donate their equipment, their animals, their land, and their time. (One farmer wanted to donate 100 pigs, but he came up against a local ordinance limiting the number to 10.) As they do, they are supporting what the Rural Education and Community Trust says is one of the most reliable strategies for increasing student achievement: place-based learning promotes deeper student engagement in curriculum, stronger relationships between students and adults, and authentic learning opportunities. Says the Trust, “The vital school-community connection is strengthened as the classroom moves into the community, tapping its often hidden resources and spotlighting unique human capital.” For high-poverty rural schools with few “traditional” school resources, the Trust says place-based learning can help fill gaps left by low tax bases and “curricula that does little to acknowledge the life circumstances of rural students.”
Against all of its successes, the unlikely challenge now facing Walton is how to stay afloat. Six years in, it faces a difficult dilemma: to keep going it has to grow, but to grow, it needs money. The original charter grant of $335,000 has run out, and the school in its former incarnation was not included in the district’s recent $29.9 million bond issue because district officials thought it would be closed. Even now, with every sign of success, the school board is mixed on whether the school should expand. The board did approve an expansion, but the vote was a narrow 4 to 3, with those voting against arguing (as they did back in 2004) that there were too many empty desks at Newton schools in town. Walton is funded at the same rate as other district schools, but because of its special curriculum, its per-pupil costs are higher than for the other schools. The state tax dollars brought in by students coming from other districts helps, but not enough. A teacher offers the district’s side: “You know if I’m looking at it from a budget standpoint, I’m thinking there are people who are going to be losing their jobs because of budget cuts; I don’t know if it’s really worth it to keep [Walton] open.”
For the Rural Life Center to operate more efficiently, the district wants it to serve two classes per grade. (It now has only one.) The school could easily fill up even if it doubled in size. But the limits of both its building and its budget make that scenario impossible. So the school has embarked on a fundraising campaign, with the goal of raising $300,000 for two new classrooms, new bathrooms, and a conference room. Residents snapped up tickets last spring to attend Walton’s annual barn-raising festival, which features food, music, and games. Cargill, the agri-business conglomerate, recently wrote the school a check for $10,000, as did the Harvey County Farm Bureau. A nearby convenience store was giving the school an average of $100 a month from the proceeds of its gaming machines, and one local resident chipped in $50 of pocket change. But even with all of this, the school is just 10 percent of the way toward its goal. As much as she enjoys talking about the Rural Life Center, Vogt admits, “The whole funding issue has been a downer.”
Yet as stressful as the budget problems are, at the end of the day, Vogt doesn’t have to look far for encouragement. There are her tireless and talented teachers. There are the volunteers like Evan Johnson. There are the students who are so engaged in learning that they fight over who gets to shovel out the chicken coop. There is, despite the long hours and exhausting work, the satisfaction of knowing that this little school is raising student achievement at the same time it is reinvigorating a whole town. “It has energized all of us,” says Vogt. “It’s gotten us excited about teaching again.”