Schools located in rural areas pose unique challenges for secondary school principals as they deal with issues of recruitment and retention of teachers, optimizing technological opportunities, and securing grants. To get a better perspective on these issues, we convened a roundtable in July that included educators with real-world experience in rural education: Mark Andresen, principal of Mandan High School in Mandan, ND; Daisy Dyer Duerr, former principal of St. Paul High School in the Huntsville School District in St. Paul, AR, and current rural education consultant; and Paul Furthmyre, principal of East Middle School in Great Falls, MT. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion.

Levin-Epstein: What’s the number one issue in rural education today?

Andresen: In North Dakota, there’s the issue of teacher and administrative shortages. The effects have been showing up in our ability to offer programming across the state at smaller schools. We’re not able to offer the same programs that students get in larger schools.

Furthmyre: That’s certainly an issue in Montana as well. We also don’t have the capability to stay up with broadband issues and the internet. In rural Montana, we don’t have the capability to effectively use the internet as a resource, and so our kids really are not getting the programming that they should because of the lack of numbers in rural schools. Small numbers drive the master schedule, and those [small] classes usually get left out.

Duerr: In Arkansas and beyond, redesigning what we’re doing in rural education is the huge issue. It seems like we’re really trying to educate students that are running through iTunes, but we’re using an eight-track player.

Levin-Epstein: How can we redesign rural education to make it better?

Andresen: Paul talked about the online opportunities and the lack of infrastructure for online classes. North Dakota has begun to develop more online opportunities. I think a lot of rural schools have. I think there’s a lot of questions that come into play, specifically at the secondary level, when you are talking about online classes. For example, for years we have used iTV as an opportunity for kids. We still use iTV in North Dakota quite often, but it doesn’t meet the needs of many, many other programs we have to offer.

So, finding ways to build a better infrastructure and offer more online opportunities for students would be very helpful in many different areas in education. All of the students in our district are going to receive iPads this year, and all of our teachers are going to be using those to offer an additional resource and opportunity to teach students here in North Dakota. That’s happening quite often in a lot of rural schools.

Furthmyre: I think technology would have to be the key. If a student needs extra help with math—after school-tutoring—there’s a strong possibility that those kids will not have access to that. If you could develop partnerships with colleges and universities and community academic programs, that would be great. The problem we have in Montana is that the closest college might be four or five hours away, and that service is no longer really available for those kids. We’ve got to tap into that technology pipeline; in Montana, that’s very spread out. Pockets in Montana have access to higher-speed internet, but those are typically the bigger towns that have the universities and other educational programs that can help support the student. When a rural community is left with using the web as a resource for wrapping educational services around a student, you then run into the technology infrastructure issue. It is not that Montana does not have access to online learning, as the Montana Digital Academy exists; it is the technology platform that is used that creates the problem. Honestly, we all know it’s just going to take money to get fiber out there, or whatever might be needed.

Duerr: I think that it’s really a matter of funding. And I don’t think that rural schools have been very good advocates for themselves. We really haven’t advocated for what our students deserve. Seventy percent of the schools that don’t have the right amount of broadband via President Obama’s ConnectEd initiative, they’re rural. And guess what? He hasn’t done anything to change it. Seventy percent of them are rural, and we’re looking at being the last ones to get it. I just think that maybe some more advocacy would help here.

Levin-Epstein: How should rural educators advocate for themselves?

Andresen: You’ve got to advocate at your local legislative level. You’ve got to have a stronger voice and a unified voice at the local level, especially as ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) gets developed now at the local level, which gives districts and states more control over education.

Furthmyre: We need to realize that advocacy needs to go beyond just talking to educational groups. We need to combine forces with those individuals that supply broadband services to customers in our state and really start hitting all the different avenues.

Duerr: I definitely agree with that. We have to get out and talk to other groups, not just educational groups but other groups—the people that really have control over the money or have control over advocates. That could be lots of different groups in Washington. But I agree—we have to go way beyond just education groups.

Furthmyre: To go along with that, we’ve got to quit advocating for competitive grants over formula grants. In Montana, we have missed out on a lot of grants that have been available, but those grants go to those populated areas. It’s the same thing in almost every realm of legislature, whether it’s education or technology groups. They put their money where the heavily populated areas are. I still find colleagues that will advocate for those competitive grants. It’s not going to be fair to rural states unless everything is based on a formula-type grant.

Levin-Epstein: What can be done to address teacher shortages?

Andresen: To deal with teacher shortages, you need to be more creative-loan forgiveness is one of the ways we deal with this issue in North Dakota. A lot of your larger schools will not hire people without specific experience. You can get them the experience by attracting them to rural schools. Some districts are offering housing just to attract rural teachers. [It’s all about] being creative—finding different ways once you do get them and offering those opportunities to try and retain them. Then, through word-of-mouth and through working with universities, you’re going to have to try and recruit additional teachers for the future. But it is very, very difficult. Especially when your universities don’t have any students going into teaching. It’s becoming more and more of a problem.

Furthmyre: It’s definitely a struggle. I myself have worked in a very rural eastern Montana community and then moved to another rural community that was in southwest Montana. Now I’m in a more populated town. You could have the best educational system in a rural community, but the town might not cater to the personal needs of the teacher. For example, if a teacher comes into rural Montana single, most small rural communities do not offer many avenues for singles to meet. Thus, these excellent teachers move on to a community that caters better to their needs. Just little things like that that people don’t think about. Even if they’re married and they have 20 years of experience, how do I get them to my school in rural Montana when I can’t get their husband or wife a job because there are very few jobs in this community?

You’ve really got to sell your vision, where you want to go with that school. You’ve really got to help the teacher solve any of those types of issues they have. The school might want to consider saving a certain amount of positions for someone’s husband or someone’s wife so those jobs can go to those folks. The pay in Montana is a huge disadvantage. You can go from $20,000 all the way up to $40,000 starting salary, and how am I going to compete with that when I’m in rural Montana and I cannot get my husband a job or my wife a job? There’s no incentive.

Duerr: I think you have to look for people that enjoy the rural lifestyle. I think it’s important. Don’t look for a city slicker to come in to a rural community and think that they’re going to be happy there. You know they are not going to be happy there. If they don’t like to hunt and fish, they aren’t going to be happy at my school. That’s part of the problem. There was a new study that came out recently that said that providing the housing wasn’t working, that that wasn’t something that was helping to keep candidates in rural schools.

So, one of the things that we really relied on, and that really started working for us at our school, was we started a grow-your-own program. We started to build a really strong Future Teachers of America program at our school and really started building that up at our high school as, “Being a teacher is just the epitome of the best profession that you could be in.” We were in the Bible Belt; it was something that was really strong and really well-received. My last year I was able to hire three graduates from my school to be teachers. Rural schools don’t have a ton of turnover if you can hire from within like that, and if you hire people who are from that area that already have that idea that they want to give back, that’s the epitome of the best career you could have. That’s where I think we have to go with it.

Furthmyre: I agree with that. Rural Montana is family-based. When you ask the mother or the father to leave their family to get training, it’s not going to happen. There are universities now that have set up different locations around the state to take the education and the training to them. Again, it’s one of those external partners from public ed, but how can the university system kind of help us out here and work closely with them?

Andresen: Under the current culture, education is not a very prosperous career, unfortunately. That’s a huge challenge that we face right now.

Levin-Epstein: What advice would you give to secondary school principals in rural areas?

Andresen: I think the advice that I would give here in North Dakota and in all of our rural schools nationally is continue to put your students first. They have got to be your priority. Continue to be creative and find new ways and training opportunities to meet the needs of those kids, because the kids are the most important thing in your job.

Furthmyre: I’d probably look them right in the eye and tell them get out of the corner and get out here and advocate with me and we’ll stand as a united group, and then we can start getting the things we need. For some reason, rural principals in Montana are not those folks who think advocacy is part of their job, and that’s a shame. We’re trying to change that, because until we get people really advocating for themselves, the rural schools, we’re not going to see much change.

Duerr: My advice to any rural principal in America would be stay student centered. Know that [in order] to do that you’re going to have to be a risk taker, because you’re going to need to be an advocate for your students and your school and your teachers. It’s OK to jump out on the ledge and take some risks and do things that maybe you have to ask for forgiveness for later, because there are things that your students deserve that they are not getting. As long as you’re doing what’s best for students, I think that you’re doing the right thing. We as rural educators have to step up. It’s time for us to step up to the plate. If we don’t do it now, things are only going to continue to get more inequitable. And I’m tired of it. I’m ready for us to do something about it.