Rural Schools Need Help. Here’s How.

Matt Salefski was a student in my graduate level class, Solving Societal Problems through Enterprise and Innovation.  He wrote a term paper, which I have modified slightly, that talks about the “hidden” problem of serving the needs of poor, rural students and presents ideas for addressing this problem in a cost effective manner.

Think of problems plaguing the educational system, and you’ll likely think of the challenges of educating low income, inner-city students.  Federal funding formulas for education and competitive grants for making school improvements favor this population. Non-profit organizations, too, mainly focus on inner-city education.  For instance, 36 of 42 Teach For America locations are in poor, urban areas.  However, many rural areas contain concentrated poverty and have schools that fail to meet their students’ needs.
Education in rural America demands attention.  One-half of all public school districts are located in areas that are considered rural.   These districts educate 20% of all public school students and operate over 30% of all schools.  They are growing rapidly, 15% between 2002 and 2005  compared to a nationwide rate of about 1%.   
The challenges in rural schools are often at least as great as those in urban schools.  Like their urban counterparts, rural schools are often poor.  Unlike urban schools, their populations are sparse, which presents additional challenges.  Together, these lead to reduced educational opportunities.    
Concentrated and persistent poverty in rural schools exists across ethnicities and is higher relative to urban metro areas. Similarly, poor, rural families are more likely to receive food stamps, and their children are more likely to get free or subsidized lunches at school. Poverty in rural areas affects students in ways that are too familiar: low student morale, disengaged parents, and poor health.
Even though their economics are comparable to poor urban schools, rural schools offer curricula that are often less diverse, focusing only on core subjects that are required by the state Board of Education.  The reasoning behind this has nothing to do with the interests of students, and everything to do with the operational challenges of running rural schools. 
The Department of Education defines rural school districts as those with fewer than 600 students. Others use a cutoff of 2,500 residents in a community as their definition. In such small schools, achieving scale in non-core courses is rarely possible.  For example, if a rural school with fewer than 100 students per grade wishes to offer AP Calculus, it still needs at least 20 qualified students for the course to be financially viable, representing more than 20% of eligible students.  In most cases, demand would be too low, and the school could not afford to offer it. 
An additional problem is attracting teachers that are qualified to teach higher level mathematics.  The lower tax-bases of rural communities lead to lower salaries for teachers.  A teacher qualified to teach AP Calculus is not likely to pursue teaching opportunities in rural schools that pay substantially less than urban or suburban schools.
AP Calculus is just one example of a course that cannot be offered by rural schools.  The same logic can be applied to other courses, including those at either the upper or lower ends of the education continuum or those catering to students with specialized interests.    
Being poor, attending school where the best teachers don’t want to teach, and having a limited set of courses is not a prescription for academic or vocational success.  A study conducted by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire observed third-grade reading achievement (a good predictor of success in other subjects and of subsequent rates of high school graduation and of attending college) and found that rural third graders lagged both urban and suburban students, and that the gap widened throughout students’ schooling. 
study by McCracken and Barcinas of 12th grade students in Ohio found that rural students also have lower occupational and educational aspirations than their urban counterparts.   Occupationally, lower aspirations are a result of the lower socioeconomic status of rural families, where many occupations center on agriculture or low-skilled, labor-intensive jobs. The average income of families in rural Ohio is roughly 30% lower than that of urban families.  Educational aspirations are similarly impacted by the educational levels of one’s community. In rural locations, 65% of parents have only completed high school, and only 10% have a 4-year college degree.  This compares to 36% and 20%, respectively, for urban locations.
The impact of these differences can be seen in students’ plans for advanced education. Only 47% of rural students plan to attend 4-year colleges compared to 65% of urban students.  Rural students are also twice as likely to plan to attend a technical college.  
Rural schools face budget challenges merely to meet state-mandated education standards.  Yet to provide better opportunities, rural schools must fundamentally change how they operate and take advantage of the changing technology landscape.  But how can rural schools that lack funding use technology to address their academic challenges?  The solution must go beyond simply putting technology in the classroom.  The technology has to become the classroom.
A major challenge facing rural schools is providing a diverse curriculum that meets the needs of every student – from top performers to bottom performers.  While the small number of students in a single rural school makes this difficult, if not impossible, a large number of schools face this problem. Distributed teaching environments can neutralize this problem by aggregating hundreds – if not thousands – of students from around the country to participate in classes taught by a single, highly qualified instructor.  
Teachers want to impact as many students as possible, and providing opportunities for highly qualified instructors to teach many students at one time could attract some of the best teachers in the country.  A model such as this could greatly broaden the academic opportunities available to rural students.  The handful of students that wish to take AP Calculus would finally be able to do so.  At the same time, those students that wish to take technical courses would also be able to take the classes in which they are interested.
Rural schools would be able to obtain a diverse curriculum at a relatively low cost.  However, it would still require an investment that many  schools would not be able to afford.  How could schools fund the necessary, new technology?  The answer could lie in finding new sources of revenue – again with technology.
One of the greatest assets available to rural schools is the land around them. This land can be used to create sources of revenue that will allow schools to invest in students and improve access to education.  A successful application of this idea is a program setup by the US Department of Energy.  The Wind for Schools project provides rural schools with small wind turbines they can install to provide energy for the school and, potentially, sell excess energy to power companies as a way to earn revenue that can be used for school programs.  The Wind for Schools project also provides schools with wind energy curricula to build expertise in the growing area of wind turbine energy generation.  This can make rural communities experts in wind turbine energy generation and potentially increase the standard of living in these communities.  It also may encourage students to pursue a higher-value four-year education and then return to rural communities to manage wind projects across the country.
Wind energy is not the only evolving clean-energy source that rural schools can use.  Solar power requires more high-tech knowledge and curricula can be developed at high schools to offer specialized knowledge in this area.  Geothermal technology may provide similar benefits as wind and solar energy generation, but requires that sufficient energy be available in the ground beneath the school, and the necessary equipment is very capital intensive.
Though certain groups are urging that more attention be paid to the educational needs of rural stduents, rural schools, themselves, can already strive to work together to use technology to offer a very diverse set of courses.  Distributed, technology-supported education programs, combined with efforts like Wind for Schools, offer the promise of rural schools providing more specialized curricula to rural students.  In turn, the education, aspirations, skills and, ultimately, incomes of students from impoverished school districts may all be improved.


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