Learning from Earle: Community School Approach as a Strategy for Turning Around Challenged Rural Schools

Dr. Jay Barth
August 20, 2019

We can all point to examples of small, rural districts where schools and students are thriving, but we can also agree that many of these districts face long odds due to historic high poverty rates, low enrollment and poor educational outcomes. Unfortunately, strategies focused on turning around low-achieving rural schools too often fail to fully consider the distinctive attributes of such schools relying instead on a “one size fits all” approach. For example, many of the most successful turnaround strategies were developed in urban settings and do not necessarily address the unique needs of under-resourced rural schools with declining student populations. Strategies such as closing down underperforming schools to firing staff at those schools for a “reboot” to charterization actually have the real possibility of doing additional damage in a rural school that already has plenty of challenges identifying high-quality personnel to teach its children. Even virtual education strategies make little sense in communities without widespread access to high-quality broadband.

This is particularly relevant—and problematic—in Arkansas, a state with more of its students in rural schools than all but a few other states. A new report, Learning from Earle: Determining Best Practices for Rural Education Policy, explores this challenge and highlights potential strategies for success in turning around low-achieving rural schools. The report, authored my Hendrix College student Adam Williams, was issued by the Arkansas Policy Project at Hendrix in collaboration with ForwARd Arkansas with support from the Rural Community Alliance.

Learning from Earle focuses on the Earle School District in the Arkansas Delta—a district taken over by the state of Arkansas because of fiscal challenges in 2017 that also has all the other challenges, including low academic performance, typically confronting struggling schools. Williams uses Earle as a case study to think through the challenges facing rural educational transformation, concluding that the tactic that provides the greatest promise for success in Earle and districts like it is the “community school” approach, which focuses on bringing down the walls between schools and their surrounding communities to enhance services offered by community-based organizations to support education in the district. This win-win approach strengthens and supports schools by bringing services such as health care, afterschool programming and computer access “in house” where they can be more easily accessed by students and their families—the community also benefits as school improvement offers enhanced quality of life in the community.

An asset map included in the report notes that Earle schools and students have benefitted from a handful of vital services found in a healthy community school approach, including early childhood education opportunities, community access to a library and computers, and career training opportunities. The community’s commitment to its schools is also shown by the positive millage vote that allowed for the construction of a new elementary school. However, more work should be done and insights from the asset mapping process could help the Earle community prioritize how best to focus its energies in making a positive difference in turning around its schools in a sustainable manner. For example, out-of-school learning opportunities, book programs and initiatives that empower parents to be more successful advocates for their students are still lacking in Earle. Indeed, knowing that the limitations facing Earle will not be disappearing in the near future, moving toward a more formal implementation of the community school approach could be a viable solution to help schools and students there continue to grow and thrive.

As Learning from Earle emphasizes, while this focus on maximizing the assets of the community for the benefit of school transformation “may not seem groundbreaking,” it can make a positive and lasting difference as it has in rural locales not unlike Earle.  As Williams concludes, “For rural schools to be given the best chance to succeed, the main goal of reform strategies should be to position schools and districts in the greatest possible way to benefit from their particular strengths.” This often includes collaborating with organizations in their communities to provide school-based access to vital programs and services as a way to support students and their families, both in and outside of school.

Dr. Jay Barth is a Distinguished Professor of Politics and Director, Civic Engagement Projects at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. From 2012 to 2019, Dr. Barth served as a member of the Arkansas Board of Education.