School “choice” — charter schools, vouchers, etc. — is one of the hallmarks of modern school reform, especially in urban areas. But one issue that never seems to get much, if any, attention, is how it would work in rural areas. According to a new PBS documentary film, 180 Days: Hartsville,the answer is not at all well.

This post about what  the film shows was written by one of its producers, Sam Chaltain,  a former teacher and D.C.-based writer and strategic communications consultant whose work  focuses on the changing nature of teaching and learning in America. He was the National Director of the Forum for Education & Democracy, an education advocacy organization, and the founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, a national program that helps K-12 educators create more democratic learning communities. He also spent five years at the First Amendment Center as the co-director of the First Amendment Schools program. He has taught in public and private schools in New York, and was a visiting lecturer at Beijing Normal University in China.

Here’s the trailer:

By Sam Chaltain

In the small town of Hartsville, South Carolina, which sits just about two hours from anywhere you’ve ever heard of, Monay Parran and her two young sons – 8-year-old Ja’quez, and 11-year-old Rashon – begin each day in the darkness of the pre-dawn hours.

Parran, a single parent who works two minimum-wage jobs in two towns that are almost an hour apart, must drop her boys off at the bus stop early enough to make it to her first job on time. By the time she sees her sons again, after her second shift wraps up, it will be almost midnight.

This is the daily cycle for scores of families, who must make ends meet while living below the poverty line. It’s a cycle that results in young people who are often overtired and undernourished. It’s also a widespread reality that is largely invisible to most Americans, and made more complex by the distances rural families must traverse to access foundational resources like a school, a hospital – or even a minimum-wage job.

Beginning March 17, the particular struggles – and successes – of families like Ms. Parran’s will be given close attention via a new PBS documentary film, 180 Days: Hartsville (I am one of its producers), a project that was funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen initiative. Viewers will experience a year in the life of one small Southern town, two schools that work primarily with low-income children, and one family’s efforts to break the generational cycle of poverty.

What the film will also make visible, albeit indirectly, is our national preoccupation with the needs of cities, and the extent to which many of our most hotly debated national strategies for school reform – from charter schools to online learning – simply aren’t viable in towns like Hartsville, where transportation costs alone circumscribe the choices many rural families can make, and where many residents still have no Internet access. In places like these, if you want to transform the schools, you are going to have to do it from within the traditional systems and structures – from neighborhood schools to school boards to local politicians angling for re-election — no matter how change-averse those actors and institutions tend to be.

At this moment of intense national interest in public education, you would think that figuring out how to improve the systems we already have would matter a lot more than it does, if for no other reason than because renovating a house is more cost-efficient than razing it and starting from scratch. But the particular challenges and opportunities associated with reform in rural schools matter for another reason – those schools house nearly10 million American students, or slightly more than 20 percent of the nation’s total enrollment. And yet, as a recent report of the Rural School and Community Trust made clear, “the invisibility of rural education persists in many states. Many rural students are largely invisible to state policy makers because they live in states where education policy is dominated by highly visible urban problems.”

Consequently, it’s my hope that films like 180 Days: Hartsville can elevate the particular circumstances and needs of rural communities, poor families, and public school educators. After all, we can’t begin to reimagine American schools for the modern era if we remain fixed on merely one type of American school. And we can’t identify solutions that will work in the majority of American communities if we continue to disproportionately share the success stories of individual schools of choice.

The questions before us have wide-ranging implications: can a community like Hartsville really change the fortunes of a generation by doubling down on its neighborhood schools? Does the stark reality of the 21st century global economy outweigh the impact of one rural town’s efforts to prepare its children to compete in that economy?

On March 17, I hope you’ll tune in to find out, and help us all widen the lens through which we see American public education.