The One about Two Schools 20 Miles and Worlds Apart...

I spent the day observing two student teachers. Both were teaching instrumental music in middle and high schools, and each was assigned to an experienced, master teacher. But that's where the similarities end...

One of the student teachers was placed in an urban school and the other in a rural school. The differences between these two schools were stark, and illustrative of the disparities in how our society treats children based on their socioeconomic status. 

Upon entering the urban school, I was immediately struck by how quiet it was. The hallways were eerily empty, with none of the typical hallway chatter and vibrancy of excited students making their way from class to class. The corridors were dark and gloomy, with the walls and lockers looking badly beat up and in need of a fresh coat or two of paint. A quick trip to the men's restroom revealed a dirty, broken mirror, no soap, and a single roll of paper towels propped up on the edge of a cracked porcelain sink with a leaky faucet. The restroom, like the halls and classrooms, hadn't been cleaned in a long time.

Less than an hour later I found myself 20 miles away in a bustling school with busy hallways flooded with natural light, brightly painted walls and lockers, and large classrooms with freshly vacuumed, plush carpeting. The restroom was spotlessly clean, and fully stocked with soap dispensers, paper towels and hot air hand dryers.

While the contrasts between these schools could not have been more clear, the students in each building were amazingly similar. Both bands were beautifully behaved, engaged and enthusiastic. Each group of musicians entered their respective band room, got their instruments out of their cases, and began warming up for rehearsal. It was only upon closer examination and discussion that the differences between these two settings became more readily apparent:

  1. In the rural school, every child had their own instrument, and kids who played large instruments like the tuba had one school-owned instrument to play at school, and another instrument for home practice; in the urban school, some instruments were shared among multiple students during the day, and no students had school-owned instruments at home.
  2. All of the instruments in the rural school were in good playing condition, and when repairs are required there is a school budget and an established repair procedure in place; the teacher in the urban school was busy re-padding a clarinet when I entered the band room, and shared that she spends over $1000 out-of-pocket per year on instrument repairs and equipment replacement--there is virtually no school budget for these things.
  3. Most of the students in the rural school's high school band had been playing their instruments since 5th grade, and had lived in that community their entire lives. The 112-piece band played advanced repertoire, had a full instrumentation, and many of the band's alumni went on to participate in music ensembles in college after graduation; the urban school's band program had been decimated by the elimination of the district's elementary music program the previous year, and as a result there were only 15 students in the ensemble. Due to the transient nature of the school's population, students who had been playing their instruments for several years were sitting next to kids who had just started playing two weeks previously, making for a very challenging learning environment for students and teachers alike.

Driving home at the end of the day, I couldn't help but wonder how different things would be if all of these children, both rural and urban, had the same advantages at school--clean, safe and adequate facilities; high-quality instruments in good working condition; vibrant, attractive surroundings conducive to learning.

I wondered what a student from the urban school would think if she spent a day at the rural school, in a bright, spacious and well-maintained environment. Would she feel angry, knowing that her peers in the rural school district had advantages that were denied her?

And I wondered what it says about us as a society that we allow some of our children to spend their school days in squalid conditions that make learning more difficult, while their peers in more affluent communities enjoy advantages that help prepare them for success.

Write a comment

Comments: 19
  • #1

    Jacki Kelly-McHale (Friday, 24 April 2015 16:54)

    Amen Mitch. I see this day in and day out, but I see it in the SAME district. There are CPS schools with equipment and programs that rival suburban programs and then there are schools with nothing. The difference is also financial and is arbitrated by the select enrollment system...

  • #2

    Jaimee Jordan (Friday, 24 April 2015 16:56)

    Having taught in both environments, I can truly appreciate your observations. However, I am currently in a rural school and do not have the advantages you described. My students struggle to obtain instruments, the ones owned by the school are in disrepair and we most definitely do not have enough for students to leave one at home for practice. In fact, it is eerily similar to teaching in a large urban school. Many of the problems I encountered in the city are also found in the country. The biggest difference is when I step outside it smells of cow manure.

  • #3

    Alice Hammel (Friday, 24 April 2015 17:18)


    This is my favorite entry! Yes, I supervise student teachers in rural, suburban, and rural schools. The differences in materials, methods, administrative style, school priorities can be incredibly disheartening, and I am often very unsettled by the disparate resources schools, neighborhoods, and families have at their disposal. The categorization of children and families based on wealth is sickening. When one moves from the general to the specific, and imagines their own child in that situation, priorities and philosophies can become very personal. The decision our own family made to have our children attend an urban, and often troubled, school district taught us - and our daughters - more than a lifetime of school book lessons in inequality, injustice, and the payment via lip service that the privileged often offer. Thank you for writing this compelling narrative.


  • #4

    Rachael (Friday, 24 April 2015 17:48)

    I teach in an urban school district and nothing is ever going to change until the urban schools get the same budget as the suburban schools. Even then we will not be able to change everything until we start holding parents accountable for their children. The schools should not be feeding 3 meals a day and clothing the students. Nether should we be their constant voice of reason only to have it all undone from the "parent" they go home to at night. ….and by night I mean 6 or 7 o'clock.

  • #5

    Mitch (Friday, 24 April 2015 18:02)

    In the interest of dialogue I'm going to leave your comment on the page--but point out that blaming parents for what is a clear case of economic inequity isn't very helpful. If children are not getting breakfast or dinner at home, then programs to get them access to these meals can only help their learning, and need to be funded. We spend a LOT more taxpayer money subsidizing big corporations that we do on breakfast programs for school children--which is also a much better use of money than corporate welfare.

  • #6

    Tina B (Friday, 24 April 2015 18:07)

    I wonder, also, how different the urban band would be if that district recognized music as a sequential subject instead of an extra curricular activity? Or viewed elementary music as essential to learning rather than a prep period for the "real" teachers?

  • #7

    Vanessa (Friday, 24 April 2015 20:17)

    I am one of the "real" teachers, and my students who participate in jazz band, guitar, or marching band, and have for many years, are more able to commit to the hard work and constant practice my AP class requires. They also, for the most part, manage their time better. Those students who "get stuck" in guitar or band 1 because they "need a credit" are just as disruptive to me as they are to their music teachers.

  • #8

    Carrie (Friday, 24 April 2015 22:10)

    I am curious as to how you are defining "rural". In my experience (as a supervisor of student teachers all around Michigan and now a teacher educator in central, IL) what you described sounds more suburban environment and less rural. I agree with Jaimee, rural schools also lack basic services or it is even more difficult to access basic services because students are far more dependent on parents with a working car.

  • #9

    Janine Schuster (Friday, 24 April 2015 23:47)

    While I agree with the major tenets of the article, I disagree with the perception of the urban school. I teach kindergarten in Buffalo, New York--a district with the third highest rate of childhood poverty in the whole USA. Our achievement scores are the pits. The graduation rate is sad. But our buildings are amazingly well-tended, functional and clean. Most classrooms are warm, bright and welcoming. You'd be hard-pressed NOT to find wonderful classes in our fine city that match or rival our suburban/rural neighbors. I use my resources wisely and choose to spend my own money to provide a kindergarten environment worthy of any child: poor, rich or somewhere in between. Imagine what my colleagues and I could accomplish with funding parity across the board in all schools, for the equipment, supplies, sports, music, art, drama, technology, after school programs, vocational training, etc. that are often taken for granted in wealthier districts.

  • #10

    Mitch (Saturday, 25 April 2015 08:27)

    This rural school is 20 miles from the nearest city and has a population of under 2500--which classifies it as rural by Michigan's definitions.

    I also understand that some urban schools are in much better condition--that doesn't change the conditions at the urban school described in this post.

  • #11

    David (Saturday, 25 April 2015 11:47)

    The real story is the funding gap. Hold harmless schools versus base schools. Then you will see why urban and rural don't really matter. What matters is funding.

  • #12

    Lori Michelle (Saturday, 25 April 2015 20:54)

    Arne Duncan keeps saying that the children who need the most get the least. Yet the $4 billion of Race to the Top money isn't being spent to fund the inequities. I'm incensed that that money has not been utilized to open pre- k programs and fund the arts and fix the buildings and provide resources for the poor children! But have instead lined the pockets of the corporate education reform millionaires.

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