Comparing urban and rural communities, you might naturally think of them as polar opposites.
Cities, defined by their large buildings and high population densities, stand in stark contrast with the wide open spaces and rustic charm of America’s most remote towns.
But when it comes to how they educate children, America’s cities and rural communities may have as much in common as not.
A report from the Center for Public Education (CPE), released earlier this month, examines the state of America’s rural schools—an area of research that is sorely lacking, according to the report’s authors.
The bottom line: America’s rural schools face many of the same challenges that urban schools do, but the solutions for those problems are far different for rural districts than urban districts.
Like urban districts, child poverty is a mainstay in rural communities.
But, according to the report, child poverty is higher in rural districts. Forty-seven percent of urban counties have high rates of child poverty compared with 64 percent of rural counties. A higher percentage of rural students face extreme poverty—when family income is less than half of the poverty line—compared with urban students.
One silver lining for rural communities—education can make a difference. According to the report, poverty in communities with low education attainment can be up to 8 percent higher than in communities with a higher level of education.
The vast majority—75 percent—of rural students are white, according to the report. But, after a spike in the Latino population in rural areas between 2000 and 2009, nearly one in five rural students is now Latino.
Unfortunately, much like their urban counterparts, rural school districts face challenges of racial inequity.
While overall, 14 percent of rural students attend high-poverty schools—schools where 75 percent or more of the student population receives free or reduced-price lunch—poverty rates are significantly higher for American Indian/Alaska Native students (42 percent), Latino students (30 percent), and African-American students (36 percent).
When it comes to academics, the achievement gap among students from different ethnic backgrounds is similar to urban districts, with rural white students outperforming African-American and Latino students in reading and math.
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Teacher recruitment and retention
While urban schools struggle with retention of quality teachers, the sheer distance of communities from major metropolitan centers exacerbates the problem in rural districts.
With less access to university-level recruitment, technology, and quality programs for professional development, the report says rural districts often struggle to find—and keep—quality teachers.
Because the size of rural district staffs are often smaller than suburban or urban school staffs, the loss of even one faculty member can have a huge impact.
Unique challenges, unique solutions
Urban and rural schools face similar challenges, but the effects of those challenges are often more severe in rural communities.
The solutions to those problems are also different in small towns.
CPE suggests rural school leaders consider several strategies to confront longstanding issues related to poverty, equity, and teacher turnover:
- Ensure school leaders, such as building principals, have specialized training to deal with the specific issues facing rural districts.
- Foster strong relationships with neighboring districts to pool resources and knowledge.
- Engage community organizations, businesses, and area universities to support district efforts and recruit qualified staff.
Do you lead a rural district? How does your school or district tackle the specific challenges of small communities? Tell us in the comments.