A Persistent Quandary: Berea College and the Rural School Improvement Project, 1953-1957
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A Persistent Quandary:
Berea College and the Rural School Improvement Project, 1953-1957

It is often thought that rural customs and cultural beliefs regarding mainstream education may be some of the most persistent forms of resistance to educational advancement in many parts of Kentucky. Indeed, small-town Kentuckians have often been wary of individuals from urban areas, including teachers. In the early twentieth century, consolidation of rural schools invited government intervention, which brought a shift away from traditional community ideas and values. Local residents often feared that centralized, government-supervised education would divert young people, who served as important bearers [End Page 249] of cultural attitudes and economic resources, from home. Residents feared that this mass exodus from the mountains would effectively kill the tight-knit communities of rural eastern Kentucky.1

For many young Kentuckians, however, modern education had the potential to improve their lives. It could open the door to careers that would offer more geographic mobility and more desirable economic conditions than were available in their communities. Although rural insularity has undoubtedly played a role in hampering educational reform in Kentucky, another problem has existed throughout much of the commonwealth’s history: state government apathy. Historically, the General Assembly has been unwilling to create an equitable educational system in the commonwealth, one in which children in all counties have access to a quality education.2 As a result of this state apathy, educational reformers have often had to seek private sources of funding for reform projects. In April 1953, educators and administrators at Berea College submitted a grant proposal to the Ford Foundation. Directed by Berea president Francis S. Hutchins, the proposal asked for funding for the Rural School Improvement Project (RSIP), which would work to improve [End Page 250] elementary and secondary education in the mountain counties of eastern Kentucky. Thanks, in part, to a family connection at the Ford Foundation, Hutchins and Berea were awarded $221,000 to fund the RSIP for four years.

A small liberal arts college located in the Appalachian foothills of Madison County, Berea was founded by abolitionist John G. Fee in 1855.3 Already well-known for its unusual legacy of racial coeducation, the college made its first foray into the remediation of problems associated with public schooling and rural life in eastern Kentucky in 1917 when it established the Scaffold Cane School, where teacher training occurred under an agreement with the Madison County Board of Education.4 Over the succeeding four decades Berea faculty and administrators experimented with teacher training schools, improved data collection, study of rural communities and their schools, the sharing of instructional materials with impoverished schools, the improvement of physical conditions at the schools, and health education. These efforts were best exemplified by the Rural School Improvement Project (1953-1957), which focused on improving teacher quality and stimulating a new interest in teacher supervision. Although the RSIP certainly had its successes, and might even have provided a useful model for other rural communities to follow, when funding from the Ford Foundation ceased, so did the program.

Early Efforts at Educational Reform by Berea College, 1890s-1920s

In 1892, William Goodell Frost assumed the presidency of Berea College, and commenced a gradual shift of the school’s primary mission toward educating the poor in the Appalachian region.5 Frost was captivated by the communities of the region he termed “Appalachia.” [End Page 251] He wanted to improve the quality of secondary education in rural areas, while cultivating future students for Berea College in the process. Rather than attempting to subsume Appalachia into mainstream American culture, Frost spearheaded the movement to assist the communities in areas of necessity while still preserving what he and other outsiders considered to be the unique crafts, songs, and traditions of the mountain culture.6

In 1915, Frost’s son Norman authored a statistical study that quantified the educational shortcomings and challenges in Appalachia. President Frost’s main concern was the lack of structure characteristic of previous attempts to alleviate the problems plaguing rural Appalachian schools.7 He chided county superintendents for their tendency to artificially inflate enrollment rates to...