Bright stars light up the night sky over a large field below.
Back to Story Ideas

Why Rural Education Stories Should Be Prioritized

It’s “the big fields and big skies.”

Schools are the center of rural communities, yet so many education issues aren’t covered, experts say.

Photo credits: Grisha Bruev/Bigstock; James Minichello of AASA for EWA

Back to Story Ideas

Some 9.3 million students attend public schools in rural communities more than the number of students in the nation’s 85 largest school districts combined. So, how do you get more journalists to write about rural education?

That’s the question speakers tackled during the Education Writers Association’s 76th National Seminar in Atlanta this past May.  

Nichole Dobo, a senior editor for The Hechinger Report, moderated the June 3 panel that included Dreama Gentry, president and CEO of Partners for Rural Impact; Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association; and a former reporter and editor for The Hechinger Report, Tara García Mathewson, who now reports on technology and higher education for The Markup.

But first, panelists – choking up at times – shared what they love about rural communities and how rural schools differ from their urban and suburban counterparts before tackling the tougher issues.

For García Mathewson, a native of farm country in Western New York, it’s “the big fields and big skies.” She encourages those who get an opportunity to visit a rural community to “please look up.”

A native Appalachian, Gentry pointed to “the deep connection” to the place, the mountains, the community and the homes. “What we love about the place is the place,” she said.

“The liars table at the local sit-and-greet,” Pratt said. “It’s where you drink coffee, and you find out what’s going on in the community.”

In many rural communities, school is often the center of the community. “It’s a hub, a cultural experience; it’s an entertainment experience,” he said. “It’s a linkage to the outside environment,” he added. Pratt noted that when news breaks nationally, he gets calls asking him to explain what was happening.

Rural schools engage deeply with their communities, Gentry said. “It’s in our DNA to partner with communities,” she said. “You’ll find schools that were doing telehealth before Covid.”  

Rural Community Education Issues, Ideas and Tips 

With so much positive going for them, what are rural communities’ issues and concerns when it comes to education?

What the Panelists Wish Reporters Would Cover:

  • Migrant farmworker children: They have among the lowest outcomes of any subgroup, and they don’t get coverage. Every state has a migrant education program through its department of education that can give input on current issues facing children of migrant farmworkers.
  • The rural child care shortage: García Mathewson, the mother of two preschoolers, said she’s been on a waitlist for two years for openings at a center in the rural community where she grew up, “and there’s been no movement.”
  • Rural young activists and progressives: They love their rural community and have committed to staying to change them, suggested Gentry. The STAY Project, an organization of young activists in Central Appalachia is one example she cited. There are similar groups across the country. Also, tell the stories of the teachers who work with these young people, and why.
  • Tribal and Indigenous communities: The majority are rural, and they are often overlooked, according to Gentry.

Policies and Practices:

Rural schools need additional infrastructure to supplement and support them, according to Gentry. “Philanthropy has forgotten about rural communities,” she said.

Partners for Rural Education, Gentry’s organization, has worked with Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, over the last decade as it adapts and expands its model for funding and scaling up its work. “What we realize is the work he does in Harlem and the work I was doing in Eastern Kentucky … is at its core the same.”  

TIP: Include both rural and urban examples in pitching stories. 

“Rural America is not a unicorn,” Gentry said. “The same thing that is happening here is happening in urban America.”

Title I funding is at the forefront of every policy and policy discussion, according to Pratt. How it can be made fairer for rural communities is a major concern.

He also suggested reporters look at career pathways and postsecondary career awareness programs for students who choose to stay in their communities.

Broadband access is also a priority, as are innovative practices colleges and universities are using to attract teacher candidates.

TIP: Pratt specifically cited the work of Jon Turner at Mississippi State University.

Covering Culture Wars in Rural Schools, Gaining Trust and Writing Nuanced Stories

The speakers shared additional tips to help reporters improve their coverage:

  • Try to put a name and face to the story. They bring light to the coverage.
  • Look at the different ways individuals, groups and organizations are mobilizing to push against restrictive laws.“Some of us can be at it as activists. Some of us have to be at it quietly, and some of us have to be at it just by sending the checks and supporting those who can do it,” Gentry said.
  • Approach reporting with great empathy versus from a blame perspective.
  • Phrase questions in a positive way. Instead of asking, why are people voting against their interests, ask what are their interests that are informing their voting.
  • Don’t prejudge. Build trust where the values align. It’s not about having value systems mashup.

Moderator Nichole Dobo also offered advice on rural reporting. “It’s about setting aside the way you look at people. Setting aside the way people look, the way they sound, and getting to the heart of who they are, especially in rural places, is so important. I encourage you all to do it no matter where you are.”

Reporter’s Notebook: Resources