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In rural West, but not the South, teachers get break on standards

ADEL, Ore. -- There was a sigh of relief from Colorado to California after the Education Department announced that teachers in rural schools would have more time to meet strict federal qualifications.

But in the South, there was confusion. Although the region is home to hundreds of the country's poorest, most rural areas, few schools there were granted the same reprieve.

''There are a lot of people that are very frustrated, that for reasons that are arbitrary, their schools are not qualified," said Robin Lambert, a Kentucky-based researcher for the Rural Education and Community Trust, a nonprofit organization that studies rural issues. ''There are schools that are small, isolated, and poor, but they don't qualify."

Under federal requirements, all teachers must be ''highly qualified" in every subject they teach, with a bachelor's degree or state certification in the topic.

The mandates are part of the law called No Child Left Behind, a centerpiece of the Bush administration's education policy.

Small school districts in the rural West and Great Plains, where educators often teach several subjects to several grades, had been struggling with the requirement until Western legislators successfully lobbied on their behalf.

In March, it was announced that rural teachers would be allowed an extra year to prove that they met the ''highly qualified" threshold, until 2007. New teachers would get three years from the date of their hire.

But outside the West and the Great Plains, far fewer schools will benefit from the changes. The federal government used criteria favoring small, self-contained districts such as those in the West, instead of countywide districts such as those in the South.

Collectively, that makes districts throughout the South too large to get the break extended to rural teachers, which the federal government made available only to schools enrolled in the Small Rural School Achievement program.

The program -- which gives extra money to districts with fewer than 600 students, in communities with fewer than 2,500 people -- serves about 5,000 schools, mostly in the West and the Midwest.

The upshot is that while 440 districts in Nebraska, 375 districts in Montana, and 80 districts in Oregon qualified for the extra time, no districts in South Carolina or Alabama qualified. In Florida and West Virginia, one district each qualified.

Janice Poda, who directs teacher quality for South Carolina's Education Department, said it was a shock to learn that no school in her state was classified as rural. ''It has kind of become a joke," she said.

Doug Mesecar, deputy chief of staff for policy at the US Department of Education, said the agency set its criteria after meeting with educators in all 50 states. At those meetings, he said the changes seemed particularly pressing for districts that were extremely isolated, with big cities three or more hours away.

He said impact is greatest on isolated districts, which must get teachers qualified in multiple subjects.

''If we just said flexibility was available to anyone without parameters, it would be changing things dramatically," he said.

Meanwhile, in a recent interview, Ray Simon, the assistant secretary for secondary and elementary education, said the criteria were being reexamined.

Mesecar said, ''If we have requests to look at providing this flexibility for a slightly larger district, we would be open to considering that, as long as it's not flexibility for its own sake, but flexibility where it is needed."

The change has been good news for Larry Ferguson, who teaches four subjects to five grades at the tiny Adel middle school in south-central Oregon, often staying two pages ahead of his students.

''You've got the same kids for five years, so you can't repeat anything -- you've got to come up with new stuff," Ferguson said. ''It's as much an education for me as anything."

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