New York State School Boards Association

Cornell University is host to new rural schools center

On Board Online • Issues in Education • January 19, 2008

By Marc Humbert
Senior Writer

Anew state Center for Rural Schools is raising hopes that the state’s 360,000 rural school students will have new opportunities in the 21st Century and that schools will help preserve the vitality of rural communities.

“Rural schools have always been the center of small communities,” said NYSSBA Area 8 Director Antha Robbins, who also serves on the board of the state Rural Schools Association.  “And, for most small communities, the rural school is the largest business going.”

Their importance to their communities has never been greater given the continuing economic pressures facing much of upstate New York, she added.

“Rural schools can be a very positive force in giving direction and support to what is happening socially, economically and culturally,” Robbins, a member of the Delaware-Chenango-Madison-Otsego BOCES board since 1998, explained.

The Rural Education Program Act was signed into law by Gov. David Paterson in late September. The centerpiece of the legislation is the creation of a Center for Rural Schools at Cornell University. It will conduct research and gather information on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to helping rural schools, and getting the word out about its findings.

“The goal is to strengthen the role of schools within rural communities,” George Winner, the chief sponsor in the state Senate, told On Board.

Winner, a Chemung County Republican elected to the state Assembly 30 years ago and elected to the Senate in 2005, has been chairman of the state Legislature’s Commission on Rural Resources.

Seventeen percent of New York’s schools are considered rural. While they serve just 13 percent of the state’s enrollment, that amounts to almost 360,000 students, which ranks New York eighth in the nation in the number of rural school students. Texas ranks first with more than 750,000 rural school students.

While seven states have more rural students, Paterson’s signature made New York the first state in the nation with a legislatively established Center for Rural Schools, according to the bill’s sponsors.

The center was created by amending a 1990 state law that had charged the State Education Department (SED) with creating a rural education research program. That work will now be taken up by the Center for Rural Schools.

“They never wanted to do it,” Winner said of SED. “It is a natural fit for Cornell which is particularly able at attracting federal grants for research purposes.”

While the state has provided the center with $250,000 to cover first-year costs, it’s unclear whether that funding will be maintained. Winner predicted that the fight over state funding this year “is likely to look very ugly.” And, as a practical matter, money for the new center “is not going to be at the top of the list.”

The Rural Schools Association is also housed at Cornell. Executive Director Lawrence Kiley said the university has an established link to foundations that could fund much of the center’s research.

“The center should be a tremendous resource for the rural schools of New York,” Kiley told On Board.

He said moving the research work to Cornell made sense because, at SED, “the real focus has been on urban education.” The university, as a land grant school, is supposed to “support rural schools and rural communities,” Kiley added.

Heading up the new center will be John Sipple, an associate professor in Cornell’s Department of Education who has already conducted extensive research on rural schools and who serves on the Rural School Association’s board of directors.

“We’re very actively working with foundations and there’s been communication with Sen. (Hillary) Clinton’s office about trying to broaden the base of financial support,” Sipple said.

Winner and the bill’s chief Assembly sponsor, Ithaca Democrat Barbara Lipton, said the center “will examine how schools can help address a variety of rural challenges, including poverty and population loss, particularly among young people.”

Lipton said that while rural schools are “already at the hub of community life” in small towns, they are often underutilized.

“The research and outreach from this new center will be critical in helping to actually implement those changes that are so necessary to the success of our schools and the revitalization of rural upstate,” she said in a statement issued after Paterson had signed the measure into law.

A 2007 report from The Rural School and Community Trust found that while New York spent more on rural school instruction than any other state ($7,919 per pupil), its 78 percent graduation rate for rural students ranked the state just 25th in the nation.

The legislation creating the rural schools center had the support of NYSSBA.

“The rural communities of our state continue to face unique and daunting challenges,” said NYSSBA Executive Director Timothy G. Kremer. “Our rural schools remain our best hope of overcoming those challenges and allowing rural communities to flourish.”

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