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for people who care about the West

Big steps for small schools

In the battle to train the next generation of rural Western leaders, schools are on the frontlines.


These days, you can hardly walk down a Western street without seeing evidence of dramatic social and economic change. In Intermountain towns like Bozeman, Durango, and Moab, coal, cows, and timber have been supplanted by high-end outdoor retailers and, increasingly, tech companies. According to a report from Headwaters Economics, between 2001 and 2010 the West gained over 350,000 jobs in the field of professional and technical services; meanwhile, it lost 50,000 in farming and a quarter-million in construction. The same trends hold broadly true in New Mexico, which has added around 20,000 tech jobs in the last two decades, and in Colorado, where employment in the professional and business services sector has spiked by 79 percent since 2005.

The transition from a labor-based economy to a knowledge-based one has profound implications not only for the West’s workforce, but for its schools. Never before has completing higher education been so crucial — the days when a rural high school grad could earn $80,000 in his local coal mine are dwindling fast. Yet rural schools face a host of unique obstacles, including the difficulty of attracting and retaining teachers in remote locations; student bodies that are often too small to justify amenities like Advanced Placement classes; and inconsistent internet access. Racially diverse regions like northern New Mexico and southern Colorado face an additional challenge: providing equal opportunity to historically underserved populations such as Native American communities and the children of migrant farmworkers.

Principal Michael Dabrieo greets students at the Kha’p’o Community School in Santa Clara Pueblo, the newest school in the NACA-Inspired Schools Network, on Thurs., Sep. 22, 2016.
Leah Todd

This month, Small Towns, Big Change explores education in the Intermountain West. In this package of stories, you’ll encounter a wide array of solutions to our school systems’ most pressing problems. How might Farmington Municipal Schools provide internet access to students in remote areas? How is a library in tiny El Rito, New Mexico, filling gaps in early childhood education? How does the San Luis Valley’s Migrant Education Program help Colorado’s vulnerable farm workers prepare for college? And how is a growing educational network connecting Native American kids to their cultures — and perhaps improving student outcomes in the process?

Once again, there are no quick answers in this collection of stories: Even promising educational approaches can take years to implement and perfect, and years more to exert noticeable influence on test scores, graduation rates, and outcomes. Yet in the long run, these interventions should leave the West’s children better prepared for the shifting demands of the West’s unstable economy. “A rural kid needs the same opportunities for advancement... as our urban and suburban kids,” Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, tells reporters Kate Schimel and Leah Todd in their story about expanding access to Advanced Placement courses. “How are we going to get economic development going in our rural communities if we don’t have a workforce ready, willing and able to step into those jobs?” 

For all the challenges that rural schools face, there’s also much to love about them, including their responsive administrations and the tight community bonds they foster. Perhaps no institution is so integral to the fabric of rural life as a region’s school system, and few institutions will be so vital in shaping our future.

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.