Education policy tends to use a blanket approach that leans to the urban side, but that's not what's best f o r Mo n t a n a s c h o o l s , s t a t e Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said. Lawmakers on the federal level don't realize just how rural, or even frontier-like, Montana is with its one student per square mile spread across the state, she said while visiting Havre Thursday. "You can just walk through a school, and you can see the devastating affects with dwindling enrollment," Juneau said. "And communities where people are leaving for jobs or for whatever other reason." Communities want schools to remain, though, she said, even when the enrollment numbers shrink. In Alzada, for example, there are two students, she said. But those two students would have to travel 70 miles to attend the next nearest school. Issues like proximity to other schools and isolation are subjects that will have to be examined in the overall discussion about whether to consolidate schools or not, she said. A current law allows that children can attend another school if that school is within 60 miles or an hour's drive, she said. "That's a long time for kids to sit on a bus," she said. Communities want to keep their schools, though, and the schools often Serve as a rallying point for residents. "It really is the centerpiece of every little town," Juneau said. Discussions about consolidation to increase enrollment numbers to be able to support maintaining a school at all are becoming more frequent, and Juneau said she expects discussions to continue to increase. "They're not happy discussions, but because our funding formula at both the state and at the federal level are so tied to numbers of students, those discussions are going to have to start," she said. "We, of course, always take our cues from the community and schools and where they want to be," she said, offering support for any discussions about the issue. "I can't predict what will happen," Juneau said about the fate of small, rural schools. "But I believe that we'll see a lot more discussions have to happen just because the local tax base probably can't take as much as they're going to have to give." Reaching rural classrooms A new program called digital academy could soon make online access to courses that wouldn't otherwise be offered at small schools a viable option for students to gain credits. The program, funded with $2 million by the state Legislature, will provide courses like calculus and advanced English, Juneau said, adding that the 40 classes are expected to be available at the start of the coming school year. "They have moved so quickly, it's really amazing," she said. "It's going to be a really fantastic program, I think," she said. The access to the program might not be statewide, though, because of the lack of adequate broadband Internet systems, she said. Voyd St. Pierre said that the lack of broadband to Rocky Boy Schools, where he is superintendent, will mean that students won't be able to access the digital courses until adequate infrastructure can be developed. The courses also would be used for credit recovery, saving valuable time and resources for schools, Juneau said. Students will be able to work on multiple courses at the same time and at the same location, she added. The program is not designed to take students away from classrooms, but rather to help schools offer more courses and opportunities for students, she said in response to a question during a meeting of Hi-Line superintendents Thursday about whether or not the program would actually decrease enrollments at already struggling rural schools. "(The digital courses) should not take the place of the class," Juneau said. Sonny Broesder, superintendent at Big Sandy, shared his concern that the digital classes will hurt enrollment in vocational agriculture and arts courses. "That draws them out of those areas," he said. With the federal government's emphasis on high school graduates not only being college- ready, but career-ready, vocational programs are important, Juneau said, and OPI is "totally behind that at the state level." Programs l ike Big Sky Pathways give students opportunities to choose a career path early on and then take specialized courses, she said. Nancy Coleman, superintendent of Harlem public schools, said that the program could help bring home-schooled students back to public schools. "I think we'll migrate them to half-time students at least," she said. Montana has the least stringent home schooling laws in the nation, Juneau said. All a parent has to do is register with the county superintendent saying that she wishes to home school her child, she added. The idea is for schools to receive at least partial credit in enrollment numbers for students not officially enrolled in the district but taking courses through the digital academy, Juneau said. "So the (enrollment credit) goes to the local school," she said.
Juneau talks future of Montana’s rural schools
Published: Friday, April 2nd, 2010
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