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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.

According to Gene Bottoms, senior vice president of High Schools That Work, an improvement initiative for high school leaders and teachers developed by the Southern Regional Education Board, some of the advantages rural schools have are thwarted by disadvantages.

Bottoms said that while teachers gravitate toward schools that have a sense of community and appreciate their teachers, pay is often low and causes teachers to seek a higher paying job in urban or suburban areas.

And though technology can provide many resources for geographically isolated regions, access to technology is “uneven in rural high schools and needs to change.”

“Many times the technology support and infrastructure needed to access these 21st-century resources is just not there,” he said.

Darling agrees with Bottoms, citing his district as an example of this problem.

“Though we send daily eMails to parents, communicate electronically with students, have a 2-to-1 [student-to-] computer ratio in our schools, and recognize the potential technology has to enrich our students’ education through virtual trips, teacher professional development, and data assessment, our bandwidth is limited and we can’t do all the great projects we want to,” he said.

“We have to take advantage of state technology funding for infrastructure, but funding is often hard to come by.”

Federal solutions

Inadequate funding is one of the most important issues that calls for a federal solution, says the report.

According to AEE, many smaller rural school districts are at a disadvantage when it comes to federal Title I funding—the largest federal funding source available to help local school districts expand opportunities for low-income students.

“Districts are only required to make Title I funding available to high schools with a student poverty rate of 75 percent or higher,” the report says. “This bars most rural high schools from ever receiving federal funding. The rural districts that do qualify for Title I funds generally receive less per-pupil funding than larger districts.”

The report also explains that current weighted formulas, which let districts choose either the number or the percentage of poor students to determine Title I allotment, favor large rural districts with a large number of poor students, and disadvantage smaller schools.

Federal solutions need to address these important issues, the report says, including:

• Providing high standards and demanding courses;
• Improving rural high school accountability;
• Expanding student supports and options;
• Recruiting and retaining highly effective teachers;
• Building strong models of community support; and
• Setting high expectations for college and career success.

“One of the reasons why our district is successful is because we offer rigorous courses,” said Darling. “We offer 30 college-level courses and a project engineering class. We also have a yearly curriculum recycling program. Seventy percent of our students go to post-secondary schools.”

“Having a pre-college curriculum is important,” Bottoms said. “Investment in college-ready and core academics curriculum leads to more college-goers and [fewer] dropouts.”

Rural schools must make sure they have a practical curriculum that is relevant for the 21st century, he said, adding that learning should be hands-on. Students need to see, for instance, how technology and 21st-century skills can be applied to agriculture and other curriculum areas.

Providing not just professional development, but also time for professional development, is critical, Darling said, just like in other schools.

“[Because] we all wear so many hats, sometimes finding extra time is hard. That’s why we have to make sure to provide our teachers with flexible options and more time,” he said.

Next steps

Although the report was meant to give lawmakers a better understanding of rural schools, AEE hopes to work with federal leaders and other national partners to craft policy solutions as well.

“This requires both a careful analysis of how current policies are [affecting] rural high schools and a willingness to explore innovative new options that address existing policy gaps on both the national and local levels,” states the report, especially “…as Congress prepares to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.”

AEE hopes that federal policy solutions will address these key questions:

• What lessons can federal policy makers learn from exemplary rural high schools—for example, advantages of strong teacher-student ratios and personalization of instruction—that can be applied to reform efforts in urban and suburban high schools?

• What federal policies and funding practices are necessary to support the preparation of rural high school and district leaders who can collaborate effectively with the community in offering all students excellent teaching and learning opportunities?

• How can federal policies encourage the creation and analysis of national databases with information relevant to high schools and communities in rural America and disseminate results, especially for access by educational practitioners and stakeholders in isolated rural areas?

John Hill, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, said there are some deeper questions policy makers need to consider as well.

Ensuring that policy makers define goals, concentrate on 21st-century skills, and understand how to motivate educators and students is essential, Hill said.

“Do current Title I procedures level the playing field? How can we get broadband not only in schools, but also in homes? Should we add or raise the cap to e-Rate for broadband in homes?” Hill said. “These are the deeper questions federal policy makers should be asking.”

A guide for communities

In its pamphlet, “Is Your Local High School Making the Grade? Ten Elements of Successful High Schools: A Guide for Rural Communities,” AEE suggests how community members might begin thinking about whether their local high school is adequately preparing all of its students for a successful future.

According to AEE, the 10 elements that every rural high school should have in place are:

  1. A college- and work-ready curriculum for all students;
  2. Personal attention for all students;
  3. Extra help for those who need it;
  4. Bringing the real world into the classroom;
  5. Family and community involvement;
  6. A safe learning environment;
  7. Skilled teachers;
  8. Strong school leaders;
  9. Necessary resources; and
  10. User-friendly information for parents and the community.

“There is a limited window of opportunity at the federal level to achieve critical policy changes that will truly lead to every child graduating from high school ready for college and ready for a career,” said Wise. “Addressing the challenges and conditions for rural schools described in this paper must be part of the solution.”


“Current Challenges and Opportunities in Preparing Rural High School Students for Success in College and Careers: What Federal Policymakers Need to Know” report (PDF)

“Is Your Local High School Making the Grade” pamphlet (PDF)

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Next Generation Collaboration resource center. The ability to work together on group projects is seen as an increasingly important skill for the 21st-century workplace, and a growing number of schools are rewriting their curriculum to include opportunities for such collaboration as a result. Go to:

Next Generation Collaboration

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