(NewsNation) – Many students and educators across America are facing concerns that stem from a lack of tech infrastructure to the economic situation in their rural school districts.
One in five students in the United States goes to school in rural areas, and these districts face their own challenges.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is known for its captivating scenery, beautiful Great Lakes, and forest. It is a vacation spot, but for many it is also their home.
“This is my town. This is where I went to school; this is where I want to raise my family,” Superintendent Tom McKee said.
He is forced to wear a lot of hats in schools in the Rudyard area.
“I had to drive a bus. I had to replace the teaching a bit. I worked in the kitchen a few times,” McKee recalls.
Helping is the easy part.
“So our biggest challenge is the lack of funding. In terms of transportation, we have a lot of miles to cover – 402 square miles is the size of our district,” McKee said.
This means more gas, higher salaries for bus drivers and higher maintenance costs. Nearly 20% of McKee’s budget is spent on transportation, which means he cannot pay his teachers as he would like.
“Our teachers live in a level of poverty. They’re not here for the money,” McKee said.
“When I went to college, that’s all I ever wanted to do,” said Sara Galarowic, a teacher from nearby DeTour Area School District.
However, the problems are numerous. There is a lack of resources and a lack of opportunities for its students.
“A lot of top colleges are looking at people’s applications to have AP classes and honors classes and we don’t have any of that,” said Sophia DePaul, DeTour High School junior.
Galarowic said she was the only math teacher in her school of 200 students, which is another common scenario in rural school districts.
“We’re struggling to recruit and bring new teachers into our district,” Galarowic said.
Another problem is the lack of access to a good internet connection. It is almost non-existent in most of the Upper Peninsula.
“I had some problems; was unable to connect Zoom meetings due to internet issues,” said DeTour High School student Ella Bias.
According to a Pew Research study, adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year are significantly more likely to report not using the Internet than those with an annual household income of $75,000 or more..
Meanwhile, like many teachers, Galarowic said she was tired of playing every role; she plans to retire early.
“I’m a third-generation teacher — my grandmother was a teacher, my dad was a teacher — and what they did and what I’m doing are not the same anymore,” Galarowic said.
Another common problem in rural districts is that 80% of students in the Rudyard Area School District come from poverty.
“The average income in our county is $39,000. So that makes things difficult. I mean, there’s not really too much affordable housing, housing available,” McKee said.
The Upper Peninsula is known for its beauty, but also for its geographical isolation. Some towns are 60 miles from the nearest grocery store, and homes are miles apart.
“We’re about as far apart as we can get here,” DeTour Area School District Superintendent Bob Vaught said.
And loneliness takes its toll, Vaught said.
“Mental health has certainly come into the limelight lately. It’s something that’s always been because we’re a very, you know, Midwestern, closed society; we don’t share our secrets,” Vaught said.
Even with an endless list of challenges, McKee said he wasn’t leaving.
“It’s the city that made me. I’m going to help the next generation,” he said.
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