Tiny, Rural Missouri School District Spends Little, Gets Exceptional Results

Published March 9, 2017

Despite being in a small community and spending less per student than most Missouri schools, Strain-Japan’s test scores often rival those in some of the state’s richest districts.

“About 91 percent of Strain-Japan’s students who took state tests this year scored at least proficient in English, better than any other district around St. Louis,” the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported in January. “About 71 percent scored at least proficient in math.”

The Post-Dispatch reported Strain-Japan spends half as much per student as neighboring schools, “while receiving a fraction of local tax revenue.” Strain-Japan also contends with the financial disadvantage of spending about a quarter of its operating budget on tuition for its graduates to attend nearby high schools.

Value of Teacher Collaboration

Anita Studdard, superintendent of the Strain-Japan School District, says emphases on teacher collaboration and teaching to the individual student have contributed greatly to the school’s success.

“The staff meets weekly for 30–45 minutes, and each teacher shares what they did with their assessments and how many of those students were successful, then asks for input and shares their new instructional strategy,” Studdard said. “Being a K–8 district, every teacher knows every student here, so they’re able to offer input on instructional strategies that worked for individual students. Because every student learns differently, once they incorporate that individual strategy into their lessons, we see that students start mastering more.”

‘Community is Very Supportive’

Studdard says the local community is very involved in the school.

“The community is very supportive of the district,” Studdard said. “It’s a very tight-knit community. When you have kindergarteners who start and go all the way through 8th grade [together], they become so close with their classmates; it’s almost like siblings. There are so many volunteers who help with supplies and services in the classroom. If they have expertise in an area, they’re just very willing to volunteer their time.

“[The Parent Teacher Organization] is a huge supporter,” Studdard said. “They have one big fundraiser a year, and with that they have donated the money to get new tile put down in the hallways, [have redone] the computer lab, and they’re working now on some bathroom renovations. They have also been the ones who have purchased a lot of the Chromebooks for the students. They are willing to go above and beyond.”

‘Tremendous Loyalty and Commitment’

Gary Funk, director of the Rural Schools Initiative, says community investment is important.

“What struck me about the Strain-Japan district isn’t that they were doing things for less money, as any rural community in the Missouri Ozarks would have to do, but that as a community, they had a long tradition of supporting public education to the best of their ability and had tremendous loyalty and commitment to the school,” Funk said.

Elizabeth BeShears ([email protected]) writes from Trussville, Alabama.