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June 23, 2009   Email to Friend 

Darryal Ray

When Larry Lee is asked what the Center for Rural Alabama does, he replies: "We ponder."

But it was Lee who gave more than 300 people reason to ponder May 6 when he unveiled the findings of the center's year-long journey across the state to answer the question: Why, despite limited resources and overwhelming odds, do some rural schools succeed?

It was a question that drew educators, community leaders, legislators and other elected officials to Prattville's Marriot Legends for "Celebrating Rural Schools," an event that not only recognized 10 leading rural schools in Alabama but also detailed why they are exceeding expectations.

The Alfa Foundation funded the study, which was a partnership of the Alabama Farmers Federation and Alfa Insurance, the Economic Development Association of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries.

Geographically and demographically diverse, the schools are identified in the center's publication, Lessons Learned From Rural Schools, as outstanding examples of communities that work together, principals who motivate, teachers who inspire and students who excel despite often dire economic and social circumstances.

The schools include Calcedeaver Elementary in Mobile County, which has 81.5 percent of its 249 mostly Native American students on free-reduced lunch programs but scored 81 percent on the 6th Grade Math exam, 62 percent better than the state average. There's also Dutton School in Jackson County, a 244-student K-8 school with 68 percent of its students on free-reduced lunches. It scored 79 percent on the fourth-grade math exam; the state average is 38.

Others include F.S. Ervin Elementary in Wilcox County, Fruithurst Elementary in Cleburne County, W.S. Harlan Elementary in Covington County, Huxford Elementary in Escambia County, Meek Elementary in Winston County, Phil Campbell Elementary in Franklin County, Southern Choctaw Elementary in Choctaw County and Albert Turner Elementary in Perry County.

The study examined more than 200 rural schools, traveled more than 10,000 miles and interviewed more than 300 teachers and principals.

Although Lessons Learned From Rural Schools is plentiful with supporting data, Lee writes in his report that he and his colleagues didn't find "any deep dark secrets, silver bullets or magic potions. Instead, we found a lot of common sense, mixed with a lot of passion, love and caring."

"What a wonderful revelation of things we already knew, that are now committed and verified in fact and produced in a way that can be shared not only with the state but with the nation!" said State Superintendent Dr. Joe Morton. "(Now) Alabama has this model of how you get quality education regardless of where you live."

"I hope this catches on and becomes an epidemic across this state," said Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks. "I think this is an example that, if communities and education come together and put on that thinking cap, our children can achieve anything."

Federation President Jerry A. Newby recalled Lee approaching the Federation's Board of Directors with the idea of the study of rural schools. "He talked to us about these schools that were doing things that were unusual compared to other schools on the same social and economic status," Newby said. "He wanted to know why, and it made me want to know. And it made our board of directors want to know why. (Lessons Learned From Rural Schools) will tell you a lot of the reason why, but the main reasons are the principals and teachers who decided to invest not just their time, but their life, in giving to these young people. And we thank them for that." __________________________________________

For more information or to request copies of "Lessons Learned From Rural Schools," contact Larry Lee at (334) 240-7272 or email larry.lee@agi.alabama.gov. The report may be downloaded from www.AlfaFarmers.org.

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