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May 08, 2009   Email to Friend 

By Darryal Ray
(334) 613-4187
May 08, 2009

Principals from 10 of the state's best rural schools show off their "Rural All-Stars" plaques at the "Celebrating Rural Schools" Banquet at Prattville's Marriott Legends on May 6. From left, State Superintendant of Education Dr. Joe Morton, Jackie Ergle of Phil Campbell Elementary, Donna Silcox of Huxford Elementary, Amy Hiller of Meek Elementary, Brent Zessin of W.S. Harlan Elementary, Christy Hiett of Fruithurst Elementary, Jacqui James of Southern Choctaw Elementary, John Kirby of Dutton School, Richard Bryant of F.S. Ervin Elementary, Buddy Dial of Albert Turner Elementary, Aimee Rainey of Calcedeaver Elementary and Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks.
PRATTVILLE, Ala. -- 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.

"Are these the 10 best schools in rural Alabama?" asked Lee, director of the center that is part of the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries. "We're not willing to say that these are the 10 best schools, but I'll tell you what we will say: 'You go try to find 10 that are any better, and we'll take our 10 and we'll whip your 10.'"

Geographically and demographically diverse, the schools are identified in the center's eye-opening 40-page 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.

Lee, who conducted the study along with Gerald Carter of Gerald Carter & Associates and Dr. Owen Sweatt of the University of Alabama, examined more than 200 rural schools, traveled more than 10,000 miles and interviewed more than 300 teachers and principals to learn the secrets of the school's success.

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, email larry.lee@agi.alabama.gov or download the report below (this is a LARGE file). To see photos from the "Celebrating Rural Schools" event, click here.

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