By ISAAC CONSTANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — Paul Shoup begins many winter days at 4 a.m. Starting his car, he embarks on a long and sometimes precarious loop through his more than 200-square-mile school district as part of a winter morning road check.
As transportation director for Mason County Eastern schools, Shoup delivers the go-ahead to school bus drivers that the route is safe enough to pick up children. That’s his job – at least until the school day starts and Shoup resumes his other job as superintendent.
“That’s pretty normal,” Shoup said. “If we have to be able to make that call to get the kids, I have bus drivers that need to know. Sometimes they wonder why so early. Well, I have bus drivers who will drive for 40 minutes, 35 minutes prior to ever picking up their first child.”
Mason County Central Superintendent Jeff Mount goes through the same thing.
“He and I are best buddies at 4 a.m. in the winter time,” Mount said.
The logistical challenge of transportation is a clear and present obstacle for rural school districts across Michigan. With the scattered distribution of students across an expansive geographic region, Mason County doesn’t have the option of selecting convenient pick-up points for buses.
Instead, the drivers go door-to-door, and stops can be miles apart. Some students can have a travel time of an hour and twenty minutes to Mason County Eastern schools each day.
Similarly, Mason County Central’s district reaches more than 250 square miles, and the average student spends an hour each day on the bus.
Shoup and Mount have respectively $240,000 and $800,000 in transportation funds, but while that covers the responsibilities of shuttling students to and from school, after-school activities can suffer. Parents often aren’t able to make it to school to pick their kids up, and as a result, children have no way of making it back to isolated neighborhoods besides the bus. That creates another set of challenges for rural districts.
“Transportation is a significant barrier to those who are having a hard time affording it,” Mount said. Studies show that students who participate in extracurricular activities have higher rates of academic success, Mount said. “Those who live in the out-county or are away from the district, if they don’t have transportation, they can’t participate in athletics or extracurricular activities or even band is difficult.”
A 2014 Department of Education brief about the difficulties of rural education included the reliability of parental involvement as one hurdle.
Shoup agreed that some parents, and as a result their kids, were simply unable to participate in school activities.
“It’s a huge challenge for parents to be able to have their kids involved outside of the regular school day, to make those trips,” Shoup said. “Our parents are good. They’re very supportive, they try their best, but it just comes to logistics again.”
Dealing with limited resources across vast spaces is a problem shared by rural districts across Michigan, said Steve Cook, president of the Michigan Education Association.
“They have different kinds of challenges,” Cook said. “They have a smaller student population, which means that they don’t have as much money to play with.”
Cook said that while smaller student bodies in rural communities often could not afford to offer specialty classes, Michigan Virtual University–a new method for online course enrollment–was helping to bridge the gap.
But, even online learning provides challenges. Many of the resources available through Mason County Central schools are only available on-site, and certain families don’t have internet service at home.
“Kids don’t have access to that in rural Michigan,” Mount said. “I have it at home. But because of where I live and it’s a very rural area, I have DSL. You know how good that is? It’s terrible…
“If you want to stream an online course and things like that, no way. … So we can’t expect our kids to go home and do a whole bunch of online research and things like that that kids in urban areas probably can.”
Oftentimes, Mount said, lack of internet access affects the same students who solely relied on the bus to and from school, isolating them further. In distant, rural areas, the internet is too expensive, especially for families who lacked the transportation to get to school in the first place.
Additionally, the inherent difficulties of managing a rural district worsened for Shoup following the economic recession a decade ago. In 2016-2017, his state funding for the first time returned to its 2007-2008 level. However, both he and Mount still occupy the bottom level of funding based on school size.
Stuck in financial straits as a small, rural school, Shoup has had to consolidate positions for a number of faculty members — which is why he is transportation director and superintendent. It’s a technique that has been used for years by rural schools to keep financial resources “in the classroom” amid rising costs.
“I’m blessed with an extremely hardworking and dedicated staff,” Shoup said. “So for Mason County Eastern, that’s a big positive. But they do take on a lot of roles. I don’t have anybody that their job description is just, ‘You do this, this little thing.’”
Stemming from the teachers and intimacy of the community, Shoup emphasized that rural schools were advantaged in countless ways, as well. He highlighted a brimming robotics club and laurels from U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek. Mount noted how his students had the freedom to earn credit at a local community college and boasted of a prominent forensics program.
Both bragged of the rural difference in interaction.
“Even though we’re geographically spread out, the school becomes a center for the kids,” Shoup said. “Our students are like family. And I think there’s a closeness of the rural schools that you might not have in some of the urban schools… so we have challenges, and yet we have some great things in a small, rural school.”
By ISAAC CONSTANS