During the course of my career, I’ve worked a great deal in very rural school districts, and one that I visited quite a bit over several years of work is Magazine School District in Magazine, Arkansas. A town of about 800 people, Magazine is about 45 miles southwest of Fort Smith, which sits on the border with Oklahoma and is nestled between curves of the Arkansas River. When working with my friends in Magazine, I’d stay at the Hampton Inn in Fort Smith and make that hour-long drive each morning up to Magazine, the sun coming up in my face as I headed east.
I learned a lot about school improvement during the time that I spent working with the teachers and administrators in Magazine, particularly school improvement in a small district that did not have all the resources as larger districts but still wanted the best for their kids. It was a life-changing experience for me, to work that closely with a group of committed, thoughtful educators, and I’ve had the good chance to stay in touch with a few folks from the district. Recently I reached out to Randy Bryan, the principal of the high school in Magazine, to ask him about the place, their continued hard work, the kids in the school district, and their accomplishments. Here are my questions and what Randy had to say.
Talk about Magazine schools and about Magazine the town? The number of kids that you serve? Grade levels?
Magazine School District is made up of two campuses, elementary and high school. Elementary is grades K-6, high school 7-12. Each has about 270 students. We’re a rural community with little industry; most people work about 10 miles away in Booneville, and many people work in Fort Smith. The town’s had a history of poverty, low graduation rates, and lack of academic success for many years. With the closing of multiple factories in neighboring communities, many of our middle class families moved to find jobs, and this pushed the district’s free and reduced lunch population to an all-time high last year of 75%. Nonetheless, our academic and extracurricular activity success has climbed with each passing year.
How has the school (and maybe the town) changed in the last ten years?
The school has expanded and improved its facilities – new library and new academic and athletic buildings – and we’ve improved our curriculum and kept our expectations high, no matter the changes in population. Here’s just a few examples of what our students have achieved:
- Last spring six of our 24 ACT test takers scored 30 or above
- We’ve had four Governor’s Scholars in the past three years
- A Chancellor’s Merit Scholar at the University of Arkansas, Fort Smith
- A National Merit scholar
- The high school was the runner up in the state’s quiz bowl competition
I think that this academic success also spreads to other aspects of student life in Magazine:
- Two years in a row, our students earned the Arkansas All-Sports Award, given by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
- We had a state championship in football in 2010
- In track and field we were state champs in 2012, runners-up in 2010 and 2011
- In the past two years nine Magazine athletes have gone on to compete at the college level; this year one of our ex-students, a college freshman, was named #1 runner at the Oklahoma State Cowboy Jamboree
(Readers might also be interested in this Sports Illustrated piece that highlighted the success of football at Magazine and the town’s new Hmong population that is helping achieve that success.)
What are your greatest challenges – the greatest challenges for Magazine schools?
Three things, I think: (1) Making education relevant to our student population, since most of our students grow up never seeing various careers in action. (2) Changing the cycle for kids that grow up in government subsidized situations. (3) Lastly, finding ways to facilitate transition from high school success to a successful career.
And what has worked well as you and your colleagues have met these challenges? Where might there still be some work to do?
We have a great staff that buys into teaching our students and communicates well with the community and parents.
Yes, we have a certain population of kids who do not want to be in school, who do not want to go to work, and who do not want job training or preparation for the military or college, but we believe very strongly that every student can be a productive and successful member of society and it’s our responsibility to unlock the potential of each student. It takes developing relationships with our students, which is not always easy.
What do you see for Magazine schools as you look down the road – what is on the horizon and how is Magazine preparing for that?
As hard economic times have pressed the nation, it’s also trickled down to our community. With families moving to find work, we have fewer students, fewer students mean less state money, and less state money means fewer teachers and resources. Our teachers must be passionate about our students – about their success – and be willing to wear many hats for us to continue towards that success.
Tell me how Magazine’s approaching the use of technology in the classrooms, which is a big issue in many districts across the country.
Our school board is a wonderful bunch. They listen, study, and make informed decisions. We have interactive whiteboards in every classroom; staff also use ELMOs, laptops, interactive clickers, and iPads; and students bring their smartphones, tablets, and laptops to the classroom, all utilized at the discretion of the staff. As conservative as we are in some ways, we have tried to be progressive with respect to technology.
Lastly, someone comes to spend the day at the high school. When that visitor emerges from his day there, what will he tell people about what he saw, what he heard, what the teachers and kids are like, etc.?
That visitor might say: “Wow! This is nothing like when I attended school. The atmosphere is much more inviting; teachers are much more enthusiastic; they cover so much during the day (our foreign exchange students tell us this all the time); and you guys read so much!” In addition, people will not see students roaming the hallways or in the athletic facilities during the school day; we place a high priority on utilization of instructional time.