Amber Franco-Alexander hardly needed a college degree to recognize her love for teaching and start working with children. In fact, she did not even need to finish elementary school.
“On my porch where I grew up, I’d gather all the neighborhood kids, whether they liked it or not, and teach them school on my dad’s coaching chalkboard,” she said.
Her “students” were just a year or two younger than her, and were not necessarily excited about her passion for education.
“The last thing they wanted to do was play school in the summertime, but I just loved it,” she said.
This love of education was spurred on by both her parents, who pushed Franco-Alexander and her brother to achieve more academically by setting that example themselves. When Franco-Alexander was in fourth grade her mother was working on and ultimately earned a bachelor’s degree through correspondence courses. And although her dad dropped out of high school just one year before graduation, he was a foreman at the local smelter and carried a pocket dictionary with him to learn a new word everyday.
“You need to go to school because I don’t want you up there [in the mines],” Franco-Alexander’s dad would tell her. “You can do more.”
Born and raised in and around Miami and Globe, small mining towns nestled in the mountains of central Arizona, Franco-Alexander stayed in the area. She waited tables at a bakery and restaurant while taking classes offered in Globe through Northern Arizona University. Her first teaching job after graduation in 1999 was at East Globe Elementary School teaching sixth grade.
After four years of teaching in Globe, Franco-Alexander moved to Gilbert, Arizona to pursue a master’s degree through NAU. She started teaching there and quickly noticed differences between the rural education of her hometown and the urban education of the Phoenix valley.
Bigger programs, detailed curricula, and upper-level management all surprised her when she started working in the city.
“It was a learning curve for everything,” Franco-Alexander said. “It was a different culture, a different community, different educational expectations.”
Franco-Alexander said these differences really opened her eyes to new ways to be a better teacher. But at the same time, she also learned that the reason one school might have something another school does not all came down to one thing: money.
A significant amount of education funding comes from tax money, and the higher overall population and greater population density of Maricopa County equated to more educational funding and opportunities there, she said, unlike the sparsely-populated Gila County she came from. More money means more access to technology and books, as well as higher salaries for teachers.
Officials with the Arizona Department of Education and the Arizona Rural Schools Association say that teacher recruitment and retention in rural areas is extremely difficult because of the noticeable difference in these resources. Not many people are interested in making less money while having to put in more work in small Arizona towns.
According to Bill Blong, executive director of the Arizona Rural Schools Association, the lack of resources stems from insufficient state funding that voters need to be aware of and act on at the polls.
“If there is a continued disregard for education in the state, and they don’t fund it like they should, it will definitely affect what is put out in schools,” he said. “We have to look at who we are electing.”
Blong said that each rural district faces distinct challenges depending on what kind of industries keep that region running. Some areas survive by maintaining power plants or prisons, and many are kept alive by agriculture. Because these rural areas have significantly less capital, tax overrides and bond projects that benefit schools are not passed as easily as in larger areas.
For real results, Blong thinks Arizonans need to be willing to do hard things to be able to improve education in the state.
“If it takes raising taxes for a few years to get that, we need to it,” Blong said. He said that teachers are essential to the progress of the state, and properly compensating them for their work is critical.
“The number one most influential person in a school is a teacher, and if you’re not able to retain highly qualified teachers the quality of the education for the student will go down,” he said.
These struggles of rural education make Franco-Alexander’s choice to move back to Globe a few years ago to teach fifth grade at High Desert Middle School extremely significant: she makes $10,000 less a year now than she did teaching in Gilbert. But for Franco-Alexander, deciding where she should teach was more about really knowing where she belonged and less about the total payout.
“I was so bored” in Gilbert, she said. Franco-Alexander enjoyed the staff and students she worked with, but felt like she could contribute more by going back home to Globe.
She moved back to the small town in 2013 and had her work cut out for her. Franco-Alexander said that even though her fifth grade class at High Desert Middle School has 10 fewer children than her Gilbert classes, there tends to be more behavior issues, which she chalks up in great part to insufficient parent involvement.
“Parent involvement is the biggest thing you can do for your child,” she said. “It can’t just be us teachers.”
Kay Ratcliff is a teacher that took Franco-Alexander under her wing when she first started teaching 15 years ago. She supported Franco-Alexander from her start as a new teacher, her pursuits of a master’s degree, and her return to Globe. Ratcliff is impressed with the educator she has become.
“She will not quit until she figures out what works for every kid,” Ratcliff said. “She’ll do anything she can.”
Regardless of the challenges that Franco-Alexander and other teachers in rural areas face, Franco-Alexander is optimistic about the future.
“I see a lot of positive,” she said, including a drop in the number of failing students in her classroom, new programs and protocols her school is using, and increases in parent involvement.
All of these things add up, and she lives for the small moments that confirm that she is impacting the lives of her students. That is what keeps her motivated.
“It’s the smiles,” Franco-Alexander said. “In education I may not be their parent but I can help them figure out life.”
Zac Baker is a reporter at Arizona Sonora News, a service of the University of Arizona. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @zj_baker.