I’m being honest, I didn’t always hold a high opinion of “rural americans.” I was raised in the city, proud and privileged. I thought most rural folks were, well, backward. Over time, my feelings have changed. I would now characterize them as kind, wise, hardworking and community oriented. Why the shift in thinking? Education and work experience helped, but my understanding really changed when I immersed myself in the Ralls Independent School District.
Located on U.S. Highway 62/82 with a population around 1,915, Ralls, TX fits the rural community description to a T. Like other rural schools, Ralls ISD has the same needs and struggles as their urban and suburban counterparts. However, according to the Center on Innovation and Improvement, rural schools fair far better in achievement. This is certainly true in Ralls.
Our city schools are plagued with drugs, violence, high dropout rates and lonely and withdrawn students who fall through the cracks and may end up in our criminal justice system. Ralls ISD has a population of around 585 students, and 81.5 percent of these students are economically disadvantaged. This number is 15.6 percent higher than that of an urban school district not too far away.
Over half of Ralls ISD students are statistically at risk for dropping out. However, more than 96 percent of those students graduated in 2013.
In that same nearby urban school district, 42.6 percent of students are at risk for dropping out, with a graduation rate of 87.5 in 2013. Ralls dropout rate in 2013 was only 1.4 percent. Since then, they have had a 100 percent graduation rate. As the Center on Innovation and Improvement says, “Taking district socioeconomic status (SES) and per-student expenditures into account, the smaller the district, the higher the achievement.”
Lower volume places greater responsibility on a school to engender improvements. Rural schools rely on their available resources and are innovative. Strong relationships among staff, a team-oriented approach to planning, and disciplined work contribute to the high achievement of rural schools. Typically, teachers in rural school districts exhibit high concern for their students beyond the classroom and they also take an invested interest in their needs.
In addition, faculty relationships with families are strongly associated with achievement in rural schools. The school ties the community together in rural counties, and students perform better when they have a sense of belonging.
THE ADLERIAN APPROACH
Alfred W. Adler (1870-1937) was an Austrian medical doctor, psychotherapist and founder of the school of Individual Psychology, a theory of personality. Adler focused his pioneering work on community life, prevention, and population health. Adlerian psychology stressed the importance of nurturing feelings of belonging, and he stressed the importance of community.
I’m an Adlerian counselor, and I use his theory as a way to understand and guide my clients. Collaborating and cooperating with one another can benefit society as a whole, instilling social interest and personal wellbeing.
Adler once said, “The goal of the human soul is conquest, perfection, security, superiority. Every child is faced with so many obstacles in life that no child grows up without striving for some form of significance”.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “School Connectedness” is an important factor in both health and learning. School Connectedness is, in essence, the belief held by students that teachers, parents, and peers all care about their success, and more importantly about them as individuals. School Connectedness is a holistic approach to health and learning much like the ideas Alfred Adler espoused in the early 1900s.
As a Licensed Professional Counselor for The TWITR Project, I have had the opportunity to visit many different school districts throughout West Texas. Ralls ISD has been one of our TWITR school districts for the past three years. When I was asked to write a feature article, I immediately thought of Ralls. They are extremely invested in their students. There is always need in our rural communities, yes, but this is a rural community that has something to offer us, to teach us.
The “Wingspread Declaration on School Connectedness” describes three critical things a student must experience to feel connected:
- High academic expectations and rigor coupled with support for learning
- Positive adult /student relationships
- Physical and emotional safety
What does all that look like in real life? I think it looks a lot like Ralls ISD.
It’s not easy to describe the passion that the Ralls High School principal, Miguel Salazar, has for his students and teachers. Mr. Salazar is a terrific storyteller, and he graciously spent hours with me sharing the history of his district. He helped me understand what School Connectedness really is: it was already written all over the walls of the school in black and white photographs. Mr. Salazar celebrates his students and teachers by placing framed photos all over the school. He wrote a grant and was awarded funds to produce his picture project. If I can share what they know about school connectedness, then maybe we can contribute to the health of other students. So this is how they do it:
At Ralls ISD, expectations and support for learning begins with the administration. Principal Salazar stresses the use of technology in teaching his students. Each student is provided with a Chromebook to enhance learning opportunities. He also stresses the importance of having a relationship with students and says being able to build a rapport with them is a major factor in his hiring.
Shay Bolm, the school counselor, says Salazar really goes the extra mile in his concern for both students and faculty. She described encountering a suicidal student her first week at Ralls, and due to transportation issues, she personally drove the student to an inpatient facility to receive the necessary care. But the trip turned out to be longer than she had anticipated. In West Texas there are few residential treatment facilities for children, and the nearest major city to Ralls has none. She was worried, however, that there was no one available to pick up her own children. But Mr. Salazar picked her children up, took them home with him, and fed them. She says he is like this with everyone.
“He goes above and beyond,” Bolm said. “He is brilliant and sets high expectations for himself and others around him. He makes me want to be a better person. He makes our students want to be better. We have a lot of respect for him.”
Jeremy Griffith, the Ralls Middle School principal, has been with Ralls ISD for 13 years, and his wife also teaches at Ralls Elementary. In 2008, Mr. Griffith’s daughter Reese was born with a rare heart condition, Williams Syndrome. For several weeks, he stayed up at the hospital with his daughter. During this time, Mr. Griffith was the head football coach. He said his fellow coaches would bring video of the games up to the hospital so he could watch and help develop a plan for them. He says he will never forget all the love and support the people of Ralls provided his family.
I learned a lot about Reese while visiting Mr. Griffith and others in Ralls. Reese never met a stranger. She was a beautiful, empathetic little girl who cared deeply for others. And she loved to play softball. The Ralls ISD baseball field was named in honor of her. She was four years old when she passed.
Of course, Ralls is equally dedicated to academic achievement. Chelsey Campbell, the principal at Ralls Elementary School understands that in order for students to excel, parents must buy in. For the past three years, Mrs. Campbell has worked diligently on building strong connections with “her” parents. In addition to hosting an elaborate Fall Festival, countless music recitals, and a popular recycling program, each year the school hosts a book fair. The fair has become a huge community event, and parents do a lot of their Christmas shopping there because it allows families who struggle with transportation to shop for gifts without leaving town. The book fair also provides a way for the school to get books into more students’ homes, encouraging literacy and learning at an early age.
Ralls also has a great after-school program. The Edge Mentoring Program is designed to keep children off the streets and encourage academics and creative learning. A bus picks students up and transports them to the program where they are given help with homework and offered classes in the arts, cooking and baking, candy making(!), and most recently archery. The program is designed to offer the enrichment learning a student may not get in his or her home. The Edge Mentoring Program also gives parents extra time to get off work without leaving their children unattended.
POSITIVE STUDENT RELATIONSHIPS
One of the coolest stories shared with me about the students in Ralls was about a boy named Geronimo. He was a high school student with an enlarged heart that prevented him from playing sports. He loved his school and everyone loved him. He also loved NBA star Lebron James, so the Children’s Miracle Network sent Geronimo to watch Lebron play. During the unveiling, students performed a flash mob, dancing to the song “Geronimo.” He and his parents were unaware that the Children’s Miracle Network was about to give him such a great gift. Two days prior to the event, the entire school practiced the routine. The cheerleaders taught them the dance. It’s this sense of community and connection that makes opportunities like this possible.
Last year, for example, the Ralls Student Council decided to help other students in need. Student Council Representative Virginia Meza suggested a dodgeball tournament to help raise money to purchase winter coats for any student who needed one. With students helping to spread the word, the project was a success. Around 50 coats were provided to kids in the district.
PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL SAFETY
In each of the principals’ offices, on their computer screens, is a live view of their campus. I was visiting with Mr. Salazar, clarifying a few stories, and I swear that man has eyes in the back of his head. We were not even looking at the computer when he jumped up and said, “Where is that student going?” He rushed out of the office to find out why the student left the building. School security is another big point of emphasis in Ralls ISD.
“Ralls ISD looked at several factors when we implemented access control on all buildings as well as the policy allowing certain employees to carry a firearm,” said Salazar. “Student and staff safety is a top priority at Ralls ISD. Based on the increasing number of shootings in gun free zones and recognizing the delay in response from emergency first responders, including law enforcement, in an emergency situation may have devastating consequences, the School Board adopted the policy allowing specific school employees to carry firearms.”
Ralls ISD also takes extra precautions when it comes to the mental and emotional well-being of their students. They know there are times a student needs extra help despite the best efforts of the school. Ralls asks for help and welcomes outside counselors and telemedicine.
As one staff member noted, “We are not perfect, and we don’t claim to be.” They are however, a team of caring educators who understand the struggles their students face because they know each of them personally.
Visiting Ralls ISD has been a humbling experience. Rural America has something to teach us all when it comes to education. They are connected, and it runs deep. Many of the students I spoke to said they appreciate the small classes and individual attention they receive in Ralls, but I think one student in particular summed it up best: “Our teachers tell us they care.”