Navigating Back-to-School Challenges in Rural Arkansas
Friday, August 25, 2023
More than a half million Arkansas kids are back at school for the fall, and districts across the state face different challenges.
For some in rural Arkansas, it means ballooning class sizes and a hunt for more teachers and classroom space.
Jon Laffoon, superintendent of the Farmington School District, said some districts are losing students, but in rural Northwest Arkansas, they have seen an uptick of well over 130 students this year as more families choose to move into his district. Farmington's five public schools now serve more than 2,500 children.
"Our biggest challenge is going up 300 or 400 kids in my three years here," Laffoon explained. "Our biggest challenge is making sure that we have adequate classroom space, and making sure that we are able to plan for the future and plan for that growth."
Laffoon added school districts across the state are seeing the effects of the teacher shortage. They are having difficulty recruiting teachers in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math, which means more students are missing out on those opportunities.
The LEARNS Act passed by the Arkansas Legislature went into effect this month. It includes a variety of provisions, from increased security measures to improving teacher pay, and introducing controversial school vouchers.
Laffoon noted some Arkansans believe it was rushed through, leaving students and educators to face the consequences. But he thinks the bill's focus on literacy and making pre-Kindergarten a priority is a plus.
"I've talked to the commissioner and told them this, they still need to find a way to fund pre-K for our districts, because that's the barrier that's keeping more districts from having pre-K early education," Laffoon emphasized. "When you have pre-K, data shows that you're going to increase school readiness, language and literacy. And so, if we want to really improve literacy, to me, that's the hump we've got to get over, is access to pre-K."
Dennis Copeland, assistant director of the Arkansas Rural Education Association, said his group supports and advocates for public education, with 213 school districts and 15 of the educational service co-ops as members. The group provides $24,000 in scholarships each year to member school districts, including some funding for teacher education.
"We have two vocational scholarships that are $1,000 each for two years, and then, we have two paraprofessional scholarships, $1,000 each for two years," Copeland outlined. "We try to encourage those folks that are there at school that are paraprofessionals to go back and finish up, hopefully get hired there by that school district that they're working for currently."
He added smaller, rural districts are working to "grow their own" teaching staffs, and recruiting more college students to pursue education majors. He noted the minimum starting salary for a teacher in Arkansas is $50,000.
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