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The New Student's Reference Work/Schools, Rural

Schools, Ru′ral, are generally called country or district schools. The term is applied to that class of elementary schools found in agricultural regions or in communities possessing a more or less scattered population. In the United States, at the present time, the rural school is a public school, free to all children of school-age, (which varies in different states, beginning at four, five or six years and extending to eighteen, nineteen, twenty or twenty-one years), of both sexes, residing within a defined territory, — the school-district, the township or the county. Comparatively few instances of such schools being of parochial or private character are known. In the southern states separate schools are provided for the white and negro children. Special schools for Indian children are maintained by the Federal government on Indian reservations.

As ordinarily existing, a rural school is taught by a single teacher, in a building having but one school-room. It is in session from a few weeks each year in the poorly provided and less progressive communities to seven or eight months in the more favored and progressive sections of the country. The time of the year at which the school-session or term is held differs in different regions, being influenced by the character of the climate, quality of roads and occupation of the people. The number of pupils attending a rural school varies between the widest extremes. It is not an uncommon thing, in thinly populated reigions and in sections divided into many districts of small area, to find a school having but a half dozen or fewer pupils. Frequently, however, in the midst of a numerous population, or wherever the school supplies a somewhat larger area, a single schoolroom may serve for forty, fifty or sometimes close to a hundred pupils. Some states have enacted laws which make it necessary to build another school-room and employ another teacher when the attendance of the school reaches a maximum number, say sixty. Through consolidation of schools and the transportation of pupils a widespread movement is going on to decrease the number of small, poorly attended and isolated rural schools, and at the same time to encourage longer and more regular attendance of pupils. While the laws making the attendance of children between certain ages (8 to 14) compulsory, now in operation in thirty-six states and territories, are generally intended to apply to all children, irrespective of whether they live in city or country, for the most part no great effort is made to enforce these laws in the rural districts. The difference between city and country in this respect is shown in a striking manner by the fact that, while the average daily attendance of pupils in village and city schools is seldom below 90 per cent., that of the rural schools is most frequently in the neighborhood of 50 or 60 per cent.

The course of study of the fully organized rural school is usually eight years in length, and is composed of the recognized elementary or common-school subjects, — reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling, English grammar, geography, United States history, civil government, physiology and hygiene. Of recent years some of the more progressive states have added instruction in elementary agriculture, manual training and domestic science. Instead of being a graded school, that is, one made of pupils of nearly the same age and advancement, studying the same subjects together in classes, the rural school in the majority of cases is an ungraded school. In the smallest schools each pupil is a class by himself. In the large schools the whole number of pupils is divided into three or more groups for teaching. By law in most of the states all public schools must be taught in the English language, although in some sections of the country instruction is actually carried on in other languages; for example, in Louisana teaching in the French language is permitted in those localities where the French language predominates and in New Mexico in Spanish where that language is largely employed. While the typical rural school gives instruction of only elementary character, frequently secondary or high-school subjects are included. The establishment of rural and township high-schools and the consolidation of schools, particularly during the last decade, have greatly increased the opportunity of country children for a better and more advanced education.

Organization and Government. All of the public schools of each state are organized into a system. Every public rural school, then, is a state institution and, as such, falls to some degree under the control of a branch of the state government, which is usually presided over by a state superintendent of public instruction or a state board of education. In practice the actual control over any particular school is exercised by school-officers, elected by the people of the locality or chosen by the state educational officials. The local school-officers are known as school-boards, boards of school-directors, boards of education, school-trustees or county superintendents. The method of selection, the powers and the duties of these school-officers vary much in different states. However, it may be said that they act in general under the direction of a state-superintendent or a state-board of education and under the authority of the laws governing schools passed by the state legislatures. These laws usually prescribe what school-officers there shall be for each school, when and how and for how long and by whom they shall be chosen, the amount of school-taxes to be raised and the manner of raising these, the length of the school-year, the age of pupils, the qualifications of teachers, the subjects to be taught etc.

The important fact to be kept in mind here is that every public rural school is a state institution, organized and governed in accordance with the general laws of the state regarding public schools. Though in many instances the people of the community exercise a large influence in determining the character and policy of the school, they are obliged, nevertheless, to act and proceed in the manner prescribed by the laws governing the public schools of the state.

Support. The best definition of a public school is that it is a school deriving its support entirely or in part from moneys raised by a general state or county or other local tax. The principle that all property and all persons may be taxed for the support of public schools may be called one of the most firmly fixed beliefs of the American people, and one that has aided more than any other in the giving of opportunity for education to every American boy and girl. Rural schools as public schools, with very few exceptions, are supported wholly by public funds.

Each state has its own particular plan of providing money to support its public schools. In the main this money may be said to come from one or more of five sources or according to one of five methods: the local school-tax; the state school-tax; the income from the common-school fund; special licenses and fees; and special state aids and appropriations.

The local tax is that levied annually upon the taxable property in any school-district, township or county. The amount of the tax is fixed either by the people themselves, as in the case of many school-district organizations; or by such school-officers as school-boards, school-directors or school-trustees; or by other local officials, as boards of supervisors and boards of commissioners.

The state school-tax is a tax, regulated in amount by the state law, levied by the state officers upon the taxable property in the state and distributed to the different counties, townships or school-districts, generally, on the basis of the number of children of school-age residing therein. Other methods of distribution, as, for example, valuation of property, school-enrollment, school-attendance or the number of schools or teachers, are also used, singly or in combination. Sometimes, as in California, a special state-tax is levied for the benefit of high schools alone.

The permanent school-funds found in most states were formed principally from the sale and rent of public lands that had been set aside for school-purposes. The income on these funds is alone used for the support of the schools of the state, and this income is apportioned to the various schools of the state according to methods similar to those indicated above for the state school-taxes.

In a number of states special forms of revenue are used to aid in the support of public schools. Among these may be mentioned liquor and other business license-moneys, inheritance-taxes, poll-taxes, dog-taxes, certain classes of fines etc.

The last source of support that may be mentioned relates to the appropriations derived from the state treasury in the form of special aid to particular classes of schools, as high schools, manual-training schools, rural and semirural schools, and to schools for which the ordinary means of support are found to be insufficient. These special aids or subsidies, as they may be called, are employed in several states to raise the general standard of public education by stimulating the attendance of pupils and to encourage the people to establish and maintain efficient schools of the kinds indicated. The system of special aids to rural schools is found in but few states, as for example, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and in some of the more progressive southern states for the special purpose of securing better school-equipment; yet the signs of the times are that it will soon be more widely used to improve these schools and thereby equalize the educational advantages open to the children of the country districts. The most important problem of the rural schools throughout the whole country is the devising of ways and means to increase the amount of support, so that these schools may be placed on a par with the public schools of the villages and cities.

Teachers. No person is permitted to teach in any public school of any state without having first received a teacher's certificate, which may be obtained by passing a written examination or by completing a course of study at a high school, normal school or college. In almost all of the states of the Union one or more normal schools for the special training of teachers for the public schools exist as a part of the educational system. Certain states require that high schools shall give instruction in those subjects that will be of special value to teachers. This provision has a direct influence upon rural schools, because in very many cases the graduates of high schools become teachers in the rural schools. In addition to the high schools, normal schools and colleges, there are numerous institutions under private management with a similar aim. The supply of trained teachers furnished by the different high schools, normal schools and colleges scarcely more than equals the demands from the rapidly growing public schools of cities and villages. As a result of these demands, together with the better salaries and more attractive life in cities and villages, few trained teachers are found in the rural schools. Generally speaking, the great majority of rural school-teachers are young women without any special education to fit them for teaching beyond that provided in the schools they teach or, at the best, by a neighboring high school. In this respect the most of rural schools are not provided with teachers of sufficient skill and training to do the important work to be done. The low and insufficient salaries paid and the uncertainty of securing and holding a situation tend to make the rural teachers' position a hard one. Of recent years some of the more progressive states have established special county-schools for the training of teachers for the rural schools, and others, as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Maryland, North Dakota and West Virginia, have also passed minimum-salary laws. Under these laws every public-school teacher must be paid at least a certain monthly salary ($40 to $45), and no board of education or school-district may pay a smaller sum. The question of obtaining trained and expert teachers is the second large and important problem yet to be solved.

Buildings. The old-fashioned, country school-house was constructed of logs, rough lumber, stone or, in some of the prairie-states, even of sod. It contained one oblong-shaped room, about 20 feet wide and 30 long, was heated by a fire-place or stove, and was furnished with rudely made desks and benches for the pupils. It was oft-times very poorly lighted and generally cold in winter and hot in summer. Very little was thought of ventilation and fresh air. Instead of being the best-built and neatest-looking building in the community and surrounded by well-kept grounds, it was more apt to be unpainted and dilapidated in appearance by its broken shutters and windows. In the larger number of cases it was located on the most exposed or least desirable piece of land in the district; hence the school-house surroundings were altogether barren except for the tangled growth of weeds that sprang up during vacations. As one drove through the country the school-house could frequently be picked out as the worst and most doleful-looking of all the buildings. Many of the farmers' barns looked neater and more inviting. Unfortunately many thousand country-school pupils still go to school in buildings of this kind.

However, a great change is taking place, and all over the United States new structures are being built for the rural schools, which are properly and sufficiently heated, ventilated, lighted, provided with furniture and apparatus for school-work and surrounded by shade-trees and neatly kept grounds. It is coming to be recognized that the “little, red school-house” of olden time lacked many things necessary to the health, comfort and progress of pupils and that the pupils of the rural schools are entitled to as good, healthful, useful and beautiful school-buildings as the pupils of the village and city schools. To encourage the erection of better school-buildings in the rural sections a number of states now offer special aid in the way of additional funds. To provide against poorly constructed buildings it is becoming a common practice to require, before any rural school-building is erected, that the plans for it shall be approved by some competent county or state educational officer. For the information of parents, teachers and school-boards many states have issued books of plans of model buildings and pamphlets giving in detail the requirements that should be fulfilled, that a child may attend school and not be under unhealthful conditions.

Improvement of Rural Schools. During the past decade many efforts have been made to improve the character of the rural schools; and at present these schools are receiving more attention from the people concerned and from educators, legislators and public men than ever before. That these schools deserve such widespread assistance and improvement is evident. In the main the rural schools are the weakest and least satisfactory, yet at the same time the most important, part of the American public schools. Though exact and reliable statistics are wanting upon the number and attendance of these schools, certain conclusions can be drawn indirectly. In 1905 there were approximately eighty-two and one half millions of people in the United States, of whom somewhat more than half lived in rural districts. During this year there were enrolled in all the public elementary schools of the country nearly sixteen million pupils. It is safe to assume that in the neighborhood of half of these sixteen million pupils attended rural schools. These eight million country-school children are entitled to an opportunity for a complete education equal in degree to that provided in the public schools of the cities and towns. The difficulties to be overcome are many, yet the following movements and reforms are well under way. The first results seem to indicate that the boys and girls who are pupils in rural schools are to have a chance to become really educated men and women; not educated away from the home and the farm but for the home and the farm.

Consolidation of Schools and Transportation of Pupils. Just when this reform had its first beginnings is difficult to say; in all probability in Massachusetts where the first law relating to the transportation of pupils to school was passed in 1869. The first experiment of centralizing schools and transporting pupils of which there is any reliable account was made by the school-officers of Quincy (q. v.) in 1874-5. From Massachusetts the movement spread slowly into other parts of New England and gradually found recognition in the central and western states — Ohio and Indiana being among the first to accomplish definite results — until no less than 20 states have passed laws permitting the consolidation of schools and the transporting of pupils to a larger central school.

In operation the plan of consolidation and transportation is usually somewhat as follows: The separate, small, one-room ungraded schools within a certain territory are closed, and at some convenient, central spot a suitable new building is constructed of a sufficient number of rooms to accommodate all of the pupils residing within the territory of the closed schools. Even though the new school is centrally located, it will very likely be at too great a distance from the homes of many of the pupils to permit them to walk back and forth to school. The difficulty is met by using wagons to transport the children directly from their homes to school in the morning and back in the evening. The best wagons are constructed after the manner of omnibuses, with covered tops and sides and with two long seats running lengthwise, so that the children enter and leave by a rear door. In cold weather the wagons are heated by small coal-stoves placed near the driver's seat, which also is partially enclosed. Each wagon travels over a definite route, seldom more than five or six miles each day, and conveys from 16 to 20 pupils. Sometimes the wagons are owned by the school-district or the township. More frequently, however, a contract is made with private individuals who furnish wagons, horses and drivers. Frequently similar purposes are accomplished without consolidation in the strict sense. In the case of small district-schools in the vicinity of villages or cities the schools are merely closed, and the pupils are transported as described above to the schools of the village or city. In such instances the cost of tuition is paid by the school-district or township from which the pupils come, many states having made legal provision for this as well as for paying for the transportation.

By the plan of consolidation and transportation, or transportation alone, some of the greater hindrances to education in the rural school, as irregular and unpunctual attendance, poor and unhealthy buildings, insufficiently prepared teachers and absence of proper grading of pupils, — are done away with. Under these plans pupils are enabled to attend school more regularly and punctually and for a longer period of years; better school-buildings, properly heated, lighted, ventilated and equipped, are provided; fewer teachers are needed for the same number of pupils and, with the better salaries possible, more capable teachers are secured. The larger number of pupils in the consolidated school makes it possible to grade the school to better advantage by placing pupils of similar age and advancement in the same classes. Each teacher teaches but one or two classes; hence the work of each class is done more thoroughly and the pupils make more rapid progress. Besides these important advantages the consolidated rural school frequently is able to give the privilege of a high-school education to those pupils who are properly prepared. The experience in states where the plans have been carefully tested indicates that the cost of the consolidation and transportation, or of transportation alone, is but little if any more than education under the old plan. Indeed, very frequently it is considerably less. In fact, it would seem as if the plan offered a way out of a great difficulty, and if the people of the rural communities were to take advantage of them, many thousand country-boys and girls would be able to obtain an education equal to the best that the American schools are able to give.

Conventions of School-Officers. In order to make school-officers, as members of district and township school-boards, better acquainted with their official duties and to increase the general interest in the welfare of the public schools, especially the rural schools, a few states have begun the practice of having these officers in each county meet together once each year. At these conferences, or conventions as they are called, matters of importance are discussed by the members themselves; frequently one or more of the state's educational officers are present to aid in the spreading of information about better schools and how to secure them. Five states, — South Dakota (1901), Minnesota (1903), North Dakota (1903), Pennsylvania (1903) and Wisconsin (1905) — have enacted laws which provide for the paying of the expenses of the school-officers attending the meetings. Before all the children of the rural districts can have the chance of attending good schools, all of the people must be made to feel the need of having such schools. The school-board convention will probably be of great service in the accomplishment of this.

Rural High-Schools. The ordinary rural school is one in which instruction in elementary subjects alone is given. For many years many of the people of the rural districts have wished that their children might have the same kind of opportunity to attend high schools as the children of the cities have. This has been brought about in many cases by establishing county and township high schools, attendance at which is free to any pupil residing in the county or township, and by providing for the free attendance of country pupils at the high schools of neighboring cities and villages, the school-districts from which the pupils came paying the cost of tuition. A few states have already established county-schools of agriculture and domestic science for those boys and girls who have completed the work of the ordinary district-school. This movement to give a high-school education to country pupils is one of the most important reforms of the present time. So important, in fact, is it that a plan to have the national government make special appropriations for the support of these schools has been prepared and considered by Congress.

Educational Extension. In addition to the efforts to improve and enlarge the opportunity for the education of the pupils of rural communities in schools, numerous other plans have been put into operation to give all the people of these communities, men and women as well as children, a better chance to become educated. In this connection may be mentioned the placing of libraries in the rural schools; the establishment of the system of traveling libraries; the holding of farmers' institutes; and the forming of farm-clubs, including not only the pupils of the schools but those older boys and girls who have left school for any reason, in order to create a lively interest in the betterment of the crops of the farm. When all these things happen to the rural schools, it may be truthfully said that every American country-boy and girl has the best educational privileges of any boy or girl in the world, and life on the farm will be better than any other life. But not until then.

Bibliography. Of recent years there has appeared in various educational publications and reports and in periodical literature a large amount of material on rural schools. The following brief list gives the latest and best publications upon the rural schools accessible to the ordinary reader: National Educational Association's Report of the Committee of Twelve on Rural Schools (1895); Report of the Committee on Industrial Education in Schools for Rural Communities (1905); Kern's Among Country Schools (1906); Johnson's The Country Schools (1907); and Corbett's Free High Schools for Rural Pupils (Report U. S. Com. of Ed. 1899-1900, pp. 643-662).