Rural schools need more federal attention

The report helps dispel common myths about rural schools.
The report helps dispel common myths about rural schools.

According to a new report, one out of every four rural students fails to graduate from high school, a problem that owes largely to a lack of attention to the needs of rural schools. From changing Title I formulas to providing cutting-edge technology, it’s time to provide more support to those who need it most, the report says.

Called “Current Challenges and Opportunities in Preparing Rural High School Students for Success in College and Careers: What Federal Policymakers Need to Know,” the report was released by the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE), a national policy and advocacy organization with a commitment to ensure that all students graduate from high school prepared for success. It was funded by the Walmart Foundation.

According to the report, approximately 3.4 million students attend rural high schools, yet one out of four students fails to graduate. Overall, rural school enrollment is on the rise—up 15 percent over the past several years—but more than 20 percent of the nation’s poorest-performing high schools are located in rural areas.

Students of color, low-income students, English language learners, migrant students, and children with special needs are at even greater risk for dropping out of rural high schools, and college enrollment rates for 18- to 24-year-olds are lower in rural areas than in any other location; only 17 percent of rural adults ages 25 and older have a college degree, which is half the percentage of urban adults.

A larger percentage of teenagers in rural areas, as compared with suburban areas, are neither in school nor employed.

“Much of the recent debate over high school reform at the federal level has not involved rural schools,” said Bob Wise, AEE president and former governor of West Virginia. “Every student in America deserves the chance to graduate from high school ready to succeed in college, careers, and life.”

The report argues that education reformers should pay more attention to rural high schools, because not only do the “principles of equity demand it,” but also because with almost 90 percent of the fastest-growing high-wage jobs now requiring a postsecondary education, “our nation needs every child to be prepared to participate in the global economy.”

The report also says there currently exists an unprecedented opportunity to help reform and support rural schools as a result of the severe state and local government budget crises, coupled with the “national urgency for massive education reform.”

“The federal government will be the driving force,” said Wise. “The traditional educational functions of administration and instruction will remain with the local school districts and states, but the federal government will have the responsibility to provide the commitment and strategic resources for the true innovation.”

Rural schools’ needs

To help government officials and education stakeholders better understand rural schools’ needs, the report describes the many advantages and disadvantages facing rural schools as their leaders strive to provide a high-quality education for all students.

Some of the advantages that rural schools have include a growing access to innovative technology, such as distance-learning infrastructure that can connect students to subject-matter experts in other locations, and high levels of volunteer support from parents and other concerned stakeholders.

“We wear many hats in our district,” said Greg Darling, superintendent of Humboldt Community School District in Humboldt, Iowa—a district with 1,292 students, four schools, and 88 teachers.

“But thankfully, we’re lucky enough to have regional backing. … We have lots of small-town pride.”

Rural schools also have a small student-to-teacher ratio, meaning students can have a closer relationship with their teachers and benefit from individualized learning.

However, rural schools also face many disadvantages, such as shrinking local tax bases, federal and state funding inequities, challenges in recruiting and retaining highly effective teachers and school leaders, limited access to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, and the out-migration of young people and professionals.

Meris Stansbury

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