Struggles remain for rural educators

(NewsNation) — Many students and educators across America face concerns that stem from a lack of technological infrastructure to the economic state of their rural school districts.

One in five students across the U.S. goes to school in a rural setting, and these districts are ridden with their own sets of challenges.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is known for its captivating landscapes, gorgeous Great Lakes and forestry. It’s a vacation spot, but for many, it’s also a home.

“This is my town. This is where I went to school at; this is where I want to raise my family,” said Superintendent Tom McKee.

He’s forced to wear a lot of hats at Rudyard Area Schools.

“I have had to drive a bus, I’ve had to substitute teach quite a bit. I’ve worked in the kitchen a few times,” McKee recalled.

Helping out is the easy part.

“So our biggest challenge is lack of funding. Transportation-wise, we have a lot of miles to cover — 402 square miles is how big our district is,” McKee said.

It means more gas, higher bus driver salaries and maintenance costs. Nearly 20% of McKee’s budget goes toward transportation, so it means he can’t pay his teachers the way he’d like.

“Our teachers live in a poverty level. They are not here for the money,” McKee said.

“When I went to college, this is all I ever wanted to do,” said nearby DeTour Area School District teacher Sara Galarowic.

Yet the problems are plenty — there’s a lack of resources and a lack of opportunities for her students.

“A lot of better 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’s the only math teacher at her school of 200 students, which is another common scenario in rural school districts.

“We have a hard time recruiting and getting new teachers into our district,” Galarowic said.

Another problem: access to a good internet connection. It’s nearly nonexistent in most of the Upper Peninsula.

“I had some issues; could not connect Zoom meetings because of internet issues,” said Ella Bias, a DeTour High School senior.

Adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year are far more likely than those whose annual household income is $75,000 or more to report not using the internet, according to a Pew Research study.

Meanwhile, like many teachers, Galarowic said she’s tired of playing all the parts; 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 thing anymore,” Galarowic said.

Another common issue, 80% of the students in the Rudyard Area School District come from poverty, another common rural district issue

“The average income for our county is $39,000. So that makes it tough. I mean, there’s not really too much affordable housing, obtainable housing,” McKee said.

The Upper Peninsula is known for its beauty, but also for geographical isolation. Some towns are 60 miles away from the nearest grocery store and homes are miles apart from each other.

“We’re about as remote as you can be up here,” said Superintendent of DeTour Area School District Bob Vaught.

However, Vaught said loneliness takes its toll.

“Mental health certainly has come to the limelight as of late. It’s something that has 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’s not leaving.

“This is the town that made me. I’m going to help the next generation,” he said.