Wednesday, February 29, 2012

To New York State: Restore Our School Funding

This is the letter I'm sending to my state legislature regarding funding cuts for rural school districts in our state. I may write another one that addresses specific points for our school district, but I've been reading about cuts to other rural districts, including my alma mater, to which I am partial and wanted to write a general letter to address overall education cuts. It's a sad situation in our state regarding education. We need change now!

My high school alma mater is a rural public school, in the St. Lawrence Valley, just shy of the Adirondack mountains in Northern New York.

When I was a student, it had roughly 400 students in the entire public school district, K-12. We were all housed in one building. If you do the math, you can figure out that each grade had around 30 students. I graduated in a class of 34. Fast forward to 2012, the student body is still small and the school survives despite cuts in state funding, though I imagine it's struggling as are many other schools in New York State.

I live in another small town now, though in a different part of the state and not quite so small as my hometown. Certainly, in the area we live in, it's one of the smallest public schools. My oldest son has around 80-90 kids in his grade. It's an excellent school district that boasts a 96% graduation rate, the second highest in the Capital District.

Budget cuts, which the state presses on these small districts like a heavy anvil, are leaving small, rural districts faced with a variety of problems. In addition to cutting teaching staff, rural schools are often faced with the grim choice of cutting funding to athletics, arts and  music programs. These are the very programs that reach rural students and introduce them to a life outside of their rural landscape! They are the programs that create pride in the school, foster community spirit and a connection between the generations. It's been shown these programs actually boost academic achievement!

According to a 2008 MSNBC article called Want to Boost Kids' Grades? Get Them Moving!, kids that are the most physically fit scored 30% higher on standardized tests than the least fit kids. Music programs have also been linked to better brain function and better speech and reading abilities. Cutting funding and, indirectly, sports, art and music programs, seems like it will cut the academic achievement levels of rural schools. New York State doesn't need lower academic performance right now.

Many rural schools have cut down to bare bones levels. How can these cuts continue without seriously affecting the education quality of our rural students? Rural districts are typically not the schools that are top heavy with administrators. They staff positions they need and no more. Further cuts come from programs that directly impact students.

The residents of my hometown, my current town and others like them know what a treasure they have in their small schools. If only the state government realized it! These schools need their funding restored!

Rural students get a quality education with the benefit of sports, music and art programs. I'm seeing my oldest son grow as a seventh grader who plays percussion in both the 7th & 8th grade band and the jazz band. He joined the modified wrestling team where he earned a 6-5 record for the season. He's got a part in the middle school production of Annie. He came in second for the second year in a row in the middle school spelling bee. All of this is making him a well-rounded student who maintains his grades and is a member of National Junior Honor Society.

Sadly, state education funding cuts put many of these programs at risk.

Small schools are worth funding. Rural students are worth funding.

There's a camaraderie students in small schools have that those in larger schools are lacking. Kids need a solid foundation as they grow. Save for family, nothing else gives kids a stronger sense of community than a small school where they are a name and not a number. Their teachers know them and their parents.

Hometown pride is a mile high in small towns. Families turn out to support the local sports teams as if the Friday night basketball games were the main event. Often, they are. There's a sense of community that isn't just lip service. It's real. This is what housing developments aspire to when realtors describe them as having a "small town feel". If you are fortunate enough to live in one of New York's small towns you know it's not just a feeling. It's the real deal. 

Kids in rural towns grow up to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, writers, nurses, and work at many other jobs crucial to society. They deserve all the education and opportunities that modern students should have. They are worth the money and the time.

New York State needs to offer the same level of education to all of our students. Please restore rural school funding. Education needs to be a priority in New York State again.   

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