The mantras are all too familiar, "Rural schools have terrible problems.” “Rural schools struggle to recruit and then to retain excellent teachers and administrators.” Rural schools lag behind their urban counterparts in such areas as AP and foreign language classes as well.” And the list goes on and on!
It is true that rural communities generally have higher rates of young people who are neither working nor attending school. According to a recent study, 45% of rural 18- to 24-year-olds without a high school diploma aren’t employed. This statistic goes a long way to explain the particularly high risk for substance abuse which is hurting rural communities very deeply.
Although there have been some positive changes, by and large, the education reform movement operating in the country today hasn’t adequately addressed these issues, and the rural schools haven’t been helped enough. Sometimes new policies have been forced upon rural districts without enough success to justify the resentment they have engendered.
If we want to maximize the effectiveness of these and other changes, it is time to step back and take a fresh look at the situation. Here are four powerful steps that could create an impact if adequately implemented, and significantly improve the situation for rural schools and students.
1. Discard Erroneous Presumptions
Contrary to what some may believe, rural communities have a lot going for them. Recent survey research shows that there is greater social cohesion in rural communities than in urban cities. Families living in rural communities generally take pride in their schools and have greater implicit trust in those who run the schools. Also, there is more of sense that schools are community linchpins.
All of this adds up to mean that rural schools are blessed with a strong foundation upon which further reforms can be built. The policies designed to improve the schools whether it be increased funding for schools or recruiting new and better teachers needs to consider this bedrock of strength and thereby move forward with greater confidence and resolve.
2. Abandon the Deficit Mindset
We often hear of a criticism of the education reforms designed for rural communities that they stem from what has become known as a “deficit mindset.” This deficit mindset simply means that the reformers view rural communities and their institutions as broken and therefore need to be saved, fixed or perhaps discarded.
What needs to be understood is that neither the vast majority of rural schools nor their communities are broken. To the contrary, often these communities have within them deep wells of values, social cohesion, and tradition that don’t need to be fixed. These assets need to be seen as the foundation upon which to build improvements.
It may not be widely known that the highest percentage of two-parent families raising children are found in rural communities. Consequently, children raised in those families are more likely to have their parents read to them, a clear educational benefit. In fact, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scores, rural 8th-grade students continually outperform their peers in urban communities.
Solutions that will be successful and stand the test of time need to flow from the strengths deeply lodged in rural communities. These solutions need to leverage the social cohesion, sense of local pride, and trust so much a hallmark of these communities.
3. Find Top Quality Teachers
In many ways, the daunting challenges facing rural schools are found in urban schools as well. Take the problem of finding top quality teachers for example. Practically every school in the country is looking for the best teachers they can find within their budgetary constraints. The question becomes, “ What can rural schools do to be more competitive in their search?”
- Rural schools need to work more diligently at attempting to recruit their graduates to become teachers in their hometown. Research shows that across the nation, teachers generally find jobs close to where they grew up. Whereas this is undoubtedly easier for someone who grew up in a denser urban community, the “Welcome back Kotter” card needs to be played much harder.
- Rural communities need to innovate programs to help paraprofessionals become certified teachers. Transitioning paraprofessionals into full-fledged teachers will be a quick and perhaps easy way to enlarge the pool of available teachers who are already connected to the community.
- Rural communities need to develop lobbying techniques and connections to help their schools to raise the wages for teachers to incentivize more quality talent to consider moving to the community.
4. Embrace Helpful Technologies
Until recently rural schools didn’t have much of a choice when it came to offering their special needs students the therapy they required. They were limited to the clinicians who either lived in the immediate vicinity or were willing to travel considerable distances to help the children in the schools.
But the advent and growing embrace of teletherapy, the online delivery of speech, occupational, and mental health therapy is changing all that. No longer do rural schools need to continue watching the children be denied services they so much need and deserve. With teletherapy, rural school children can be assigned the same high quality therapists as their urban counterparts.
When rural school administrators select the online option, they are doing more than just providing the children badly needed services. These administrators are helping to restore rural communities to the place of prominence so richly deserved.
These ideas should be carefully considered for two reasons. Aside from their merit outright, they have the potential to stimulate the imagination. There are many other ideas out there as well that could easily be thought of given a little brainstorming.
The key is to realize that just because so many ideas have failed either partially or wholly, there is no reason to lose hope. Rural communities, while they may be very different one to the next, all share something extraordinary; the people who inhabit them, the values they cherish, and the traditions that they hold so dear. These beautiful gifts are their greatest reason for hope.