Rural schools often get short shrift in the national dialogue on improving education and addressing achievement gaps, whether it’s policy debates, research, or news coverage. That’s a big mistake, according to participants in a recent EWA panel discussion, who made the case for reporters to pay more attention to education in rural communities.
Along the way, the speakers dispensed plenty of advice and story angles. That includes examining the challenge of recruiting qualified teachers to rural areas, spotlighting funding disparities, and looking at how federal and state mandates sometimes are ill-suited to rural settings. Another theme? Don’t pigeonhole rural communities.
Nationally, nearly nine million students attend rural schools, which is more than the number of students in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and the next 75 largest school districts combined, said Alan Richard, chairman of The Rural School and Community Trust.
He emphasized that there are “many faces” of rural students in America. “Rural in New England looks a little different than the Mississippi Delta or rural California or Indian Country,” Richard said.
Half of the nation’s rural students live in 10 states, according to Richard, many of which aren’t states commonly thought of as “rural,” such as Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania.
Reporter Noel Gallagher of the Portland Press-Herald in Maine described vast disparities in that state between wealthy coastal communities, ”husks of cities around empty mills” and remote towns. The challenges faced by schools across the country are made more acute in rural areas, she said.
Attracting teachers to poor, remote communities exacerbates teacher shortages, because the pay is often low and there’s higher turnover, she said.
In the classroom, rural students often have access to fewer educational opportunities than suburban and urban peers, such as access to Advanced Placement classes, according to Gallagher. When reporting on rural education, she said it’s important to spend time in the communities to understand the unique issues and assets they’re covering.
“Get there on the ground,” she said. “That will inform your reporting more than anything.”
Also, journalists should incorporate the voices of rural communities and address the advantages and innovations in rural schools, not just the problems, speakers said.
“Every situation is not completely dire,” said Richard of The Rural Schools and Communities Trust. “Every story that’s about rural doesn’t have to be a rural story.”
Voices from those communities should be included in broader stories about trends, state policies or school funding, he suggested.
State and Federal Mandates
Another speaker, Campbell Scribner, an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland, said that more attention should be paid to closing achievement gaps in rural education. Journalists also should be aware of disconnects between the needs of rural schools and state and federal mandates, he said.
Some state and federal policies “patently cannot work in rural areas,” Scribner said. He cited examples under the federal No Child Left Behind Act that gave exceptions to rural school districts that could not meet requirements for “highly qualified” teachers. Oftentimes, teachers in small rural districts might teach multiple subjects. (NCLB was replaced in 2015 by the Every Student Succeeds Act.)
Richard called the lack of resources in many rural schools an emergency. He added that school district consolidation, which is often floated as a solution, doesn’t necessarily save districts much money. Also, it may cause more problems for staff and students when it creates districts across far-flung communities.
In Maine, schools in communities that have been devastated by economic downturns “are under tremendous pressure to consolidate and save money,” Gallagher said. But when schools are the heart of a community, and when districts are far apart from each other, consolidation isn’t necessarily the answer.
New problems can arise: transportation times may increase and poor communities can be forced to take on a higher tax burden, she said. And while the trend toward combining districts has slowed in some areas, reporters should be aware of it happening under other names.
In Maine, the school funding formula penalizes districts that don’t consolidate, which is hardest for schools that are more geographically remote, Gallagher said. Because they’ll lose funding if they don’t find ways to share scarce resources, districts are looking at ways to regionalize certain departments, such as payroll, she said.
In situations where consolidation is necessary, such as due to a dwindling population, “the community is best at making decisions for itself,” Richard said. “What hasn’t been so successful are state-imposed consolidations.”
In some cases, the benefits of rural schools are being rediscovered elsewhere and can offer a model for all schools, Scribner said. He pointed to the development of small schools and schools-within-schools, which mirror realities in rural education where it’s just “common sense.”
Conversations about hands-on, experiential learning are also already taking place in rural communities, where links between the classroom and life outside are made obvious.
“They’re able to walk out the front doors and have parents and teachers teaching them about local economies,” which also sets up opportunities for mentoring and bringing parents into the classroom, Gallagher said.