This small rural school is one of Missouri's biggest education successes

FRANKLIN COUNTY • To find one of the St. Louis region’s best-performing school districts, drive for about 10 miles through Franklin County on a two-lane country road past tree-lined acres of weathered barns, grazing cattle and a tiny church or two.

Eventually, you’ll stumble upon a one-story elementary school building on a gravel parking lot, where 75 students attend class. That’s the entire Strain-Japan School District.

The school is one of about 70 elementary-only, mostly rural, single-school districts in Missouri that receive little attention in the education arena. When they do, they’re often cited by education reform advocates as proof of what they think is an expensive, excessive number of school districts in Missouri.

Missouri has 517 districts that enroll 885,148 students. About 70 percent of those districts are rural.

But Strain-Japan’s test scores regularly rival and even best those of St. Louis’ wealthy and renowned school districts, while operating at a fraction of the cost.

“Logically, why would you want to close schools that are doing as well or better than other schools, and also with such strong community support?” said Gary Funk, director of the Rural Schools Collaborative, a multi-state nonprofit that provides resources for rural schools in Missouri and elsewhere.

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. About 71 percent scored at least proficient in math.

The school received a perfect overall performance score from the state for the second year in a row, a score achieved only by Brentwood, North Side Community School and Lonedell School District, another small rural district in Franklin County. That performance score is based on a system by which Strain-Japan, as a small school, isn’t graded on as many factors as larger schools.

Strain-Japan enjoys the luxury of having just one small elementary school to worry about, no high school and relatively few students living in poverty, which is often the biggest predictor of a student’s performance.

Even so, Strain-Japan spends half as much per student as Brentwood and Clayton, while receiving a fraction of local tax revenue. In fact, up to about one-fourth of the school’s operating budget never reaches Strain-Japan classrooms but goes to pay high school tuition in nearby districts for its graduates.

“When they say small schools don’t produce because they don’t have the resources, that’s not true,” said Alfredine Slaby, Strain-Japan’s science teacher.

Small and proud

The Strain-Japan School District was born in 1958 when a handful of one-room schoolhouses in the communities of Strain and Japan consolidated.

Many Strain-Japan families straddle their time between working jobs close to St. Louis and tending to family farms. After school, many students gather eggs, raise livestock or practice sports such as barrel racing.

About a third of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches because of their parents’ lower incomes, according to state figures. That number has been as high as 46 percent in 2014, still below the state average of about 50 percent.

All of the students are white. It’s been three years since Strain-Japan had a Hispanic student, and the district has not had a black student for at least seven years, said Anita Studdard, district superintendent and principal.

The community around Strain-Japan is a small and proud one, where it’s embarrassing to be seen accepting charity, and neighbor relationships are important. Many live here because that’s where their families have lived for decades, or because they find city and suburban life unattractive, congested and too much in a hurry.

“I don’t know how else to say it without sounding too country. We’re just simple,” said John Lechten, Strain-Japan School Board president, parent, alumnus and a lifelong district resident who works in construction.

Except for a couple of churches — including the Church of the Holy Martyrs of Japan, the community’s namesake — the school is the only institution of community life in the district. The school’s annual holiday play and volleyball games are some of the community’s primary entertainment. All the School Board members are district parents.

“At times it can be like living in a fishbowl,” Slaby said.

The small advantage

The teachers at Strain-Japan earn an average of $32,471 a year, which is a third less than the average Missouri teacher’s salary.

The school’s Hewlett-Packard computers are up to nine years old. The parent-teacher organization just recently raised the money to put a school logo decal on the gym floor.

There are so few staff that Studdard, the superintendent, helps scrape food from lunch trays and mop the bathroom floors. Studdard earns $63,200, less than a third of salaries typical for superintendents of St. Louis-area districts.

The school’s teachers say its small size, not money, is their biggest advantage over St. Louis-area districts. The average grade has eight students. There are four preschoolers.

Research has shown a bevy of benefits that come with small class sizes, including higher academic performance.

Strain-Japan’s size gives teachers the luxury of being able to tutor students daily until they understand a concept.

It also makes it easier for the staff to implement data-informed instruction. Every week, Strain-Japan’s staff meet to discuss teaching strategies and quiz and test results, student by student.

Because the school has only eight classroom teachers, second- and third-graders are taught together, and so are fourth- and fifth-graders. The mixed-age classrooms allow students at higher levels and ages to mentor younger students. They also allow students to be taught according to ability level.

Between classes, teachers congregate in hallways and share progress about students. They know whether a student is still struggling with writing a particular letter, whether that student has finished reading his book, or whether that student still gets tutoring help from the high school student who is helping care for her at home.

Teachers also report few instances of bullying or misbehavior, because students and teachers know each other so well.

“I’m very lucky that I don’t have a lot of kids who are disruptive,” said Shannon Carnal, communication arts teacher.

While it may seem easier for a school district to get just 75 students to do well academically, that also means just one struggling student or one student having a bad test day can skew test results.

“That is the bad part about an assessment, because it is a one-day snapshot,” Studdard said.

Canceling out poverty

Small size can be so effective that it can even cancel out the correlation between poverty and poor academic performance.

“When you disaggregate out the statistical poverty levels, kids in small schools typically do better academically,” Funk said.

Other small, rural districts have even more impressive successes. Take the 1,061-student Malden School District in Missouri’s Bootheel. About 97 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a percentage almost as high as in Riverview Gardens and higher than that of Normandy schools, the state’s two poster districts for struggling schools.

But Malden has a 90.7 percent overall performance score from the state, far above Normandy’s 54.6 percent and Riverview’s 74.6 percent.

Or consider the 53-student Centerville School District in the southeastern side of the state, which got a perfect performance score this year with three-fourths of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

To be clear, not all rural school districts in the state are successes. A Post-Dispatch analysis showed that students at small schools in Missouri fare about as well on state exams as their peers at larger schools.

Some small rural districts struggle. In 2006, Missouri disbanded the tiny Wyaconda district near the Iowa state line after years of academic failure.

Nor are the successes of rural schools necessarily an indictment on the struggles of those in metropolitan areas.

Education experts say that while urban and suburban school districts generally spend more than rural ones, they face challenges not experienced in the country. Small-class instruction in more densely populated areas is difficult to achieve without a lot of money for more staff or classroom space.

And while poverty creates burdens for all kinds of schools, when it occurs in densely concentrated neighborhoods, it’s harder to overcome, Funk said.

The faculty of Strain-Japan say they see and appreciate these advantages.

Carnal, the communication arts teacher, said while she and other teachers are paid much less than they could get in St. Louis, the work environment — one where they have control over designing lesson plans and see few student behavior problems — pays off.

“I don’t think that it would be worth the larger income for all the stress,” Carnal said.

Walker Moskop of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.