Beating the Odds: High Performing, Small High Schools in the Rural South

Last Updated: June 01, 2004

Beating the Odds
High schools in poverty-stricken rural areas and small towns in the South are beating the odds to outperform most other schools in their state. This report prepared for the Southern Governor's Association chronicles exceptional schools in the poorest regions of the rural South and the secrets behind the high quality education they provide.

Compared to others in their state, the identified high schools in rural areas and small towns: are smaller than median size; have higher than average poverty; made adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act in all areas and for all subgroups; and scored above the state mean on all mandatory state tests.

The Rural Trust conducted site visits of five of these high performing schools:

Central High School, Lowndes County, Alabama (press release)
Frederick Fraize High School, Cloverport, Kentucky (press release)
Sicily Island High School, Sicily Island, Louisiana (press release, case study)
Shaw High School, Shaw, Mississippi (press release, case study)
Phelps Jr/Sr High School, Phelps, Kentucky (press release)

The report concludes that the schools are "structurally simple but organically complex." Only one school has adopted one of the nationally recognized and packaged school reform models, while the others have developed their own cohesive plans. Throughout the schools, there is a sense of mutual respect and shared expectations. Doing well is less about pedagogy, programs, and professionalism and more about how people treat each other — the human relationships are what make them successful.

The small size of the schools makes possible both those important, close relationships and the larger instructional practices that make them successful — team teaching, consensus building behind clear goals, integrated curriculum, cooperative learning, and performance assessments. Staff and students view their smallness as a blessing, not a curse and think positively about the possibilities their small size affords them.

Beating the Odds points out that success begins with leadership that is positive, flexible, creative, and collegial. Teachers are empowered by principals to make important decisions and work together, and they are given planning time that reflects those values. Teachers serve in roles beyond instructors — they are also mentors, advisors, and counselors.

Importantly, the good work done in these schools is not that of genius. It is the hard work of caring and competent, but ordinary, people who achieve extraordinary ends because they work in an environment that not only expects the best of everyone, but brings out the best in everyone.

The report includes policy recommendations for states, among them:
  • Respect and support the advantages of smallness, recognizing the teachers and administrators in small schools play many roles and that high student-teacher ratios in particular are not a sign of inefficiency, but a sign that teachers are serving in multiple roles, some of which are reserved for specialists in larger schools.
  • Compensate for the fiscal disadvantages of smallness by providing a small school adjustment factor in the state aid formula.
  • Modernize facilities by providing access to capital funding that is not based on local wealth, is not biased in favor of large schools, and does not favor new construction over renovation and repair.
  • Improve the professional lives of teachers and administrators in hard-to-staff schools by providing mentors, improving professional development services, and providing more time for planning team teaching and other collaborative approaches.
  • Level the competition for highly qualified teachers by providing incentives, including higher pay, for teachers who teach in small, poor, remote areas.

The report was prepared as part of a Southern Rural High School Study Initiative sponsored by the Southern Governor's Association and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.