Friday, March 18, 2022

Beyond Fate: How Rural Schools Can Move Forward

Part three of a series

Brad Mitchell states in the second piece of this series: “The real tragedy for America’s rural schools is the damage … a deficit-based narrative does to inhibiting and concealing effective action to help all rural students (and their communities) rise.” He encourages us to tell the stories of success in rural education, so that we can learn from those stories and challenge negative stereotypes about rural schools.  

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy for moving rural education forward. Due to geographic and economic differences across the country, there isn’t a cookie-cutter type of rural school system.  But there are common challenges to rural communities and schools such as geographic isolation, access to postsecondary education, and having a critical mass of students necessary to fund classes beyond the core courses, such as advanced-placement (AP) and career-and-technical-education (CTE) courses. 

These challenges can be mitigated in macro-support efforts and policy efforts such as these: 

  • Expanding broadband access to rural communities for education and workforce efforts. Creating “grow-your-own” programs to recruit and retain teachers.
  • Acknowledging and acting on the disparity of access and wraparound support that exists for low socioeconomic-status students, especially students of color. 
  • Creating opportunities for access to online and virtual courses. 
  • And creating postsecondary pathways that are part of talent pipelines to living wage careers within commuting distance or telecommuting opportunities.  

Those are some of the most common needs talked about in rural education circles, but do solutions manifest in communities?  Are there lessons about scale and transferability?  The answer is yes.  There is significant progress being made in the rural birth-to-career continuum due to innovation, resilience, and a fierce sense of independence.  What it takes to move rural education forward is collaborative leadership that partners with the community and local industries to connect schools to local resources and prepare students for the broader world.  

In Colorado for example, the Homegrown Talent Initiative is a statewide collaboration to support rural communities by enabling K-12 students to gain access to learning experiences “aligned to the needs and aspirations of their local economies.”  

Another example is found in Troy, Alabama, where Lockheed Martin has partnered with the local high school to create a virtual-reality training program through TRANSFR VR.  Using this technology, high school seniors can get training that leads to a career path into Lockheed Martin after graduation.  It’s innovation like this that displays the willingness of rural education leaders to think outside the box and innovate not just for their students to survive but thrive in a global ecosystem that is in constant flux.  

Access to broadband has been a major hurdle to overcome in many rural communities, and the disparities in home access for students were amplified in resounding fashion during the pandemic, when students were learning at home.  However, there are aggressive efforts taking place in rural communities to improve connectivity such as the Final Mile Project in Arizona, which has undertaken the challenge of connecting all students across the state.  

Education resource providers have also made shifts to provide learning opportunities to specifically support rural students without connectivity.  Companies like Thinking Media have developed tools like the Learning Blade Backpack app that enables students to access learning modules focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) related skills and career paths at home, and their work is automatically uploaded and stored the next time they connect at school or a hotspot.

I highlight these examples of innovation and ability to work within a flexible system to defend against some of the common stereotypes that portray rural education systems and students as unequipped, academically regressive, and saddled with an inability to succeed in the constant growth and shifting of the new global economy.  

Moving forward doesn’t always mean moving in a different direction.  The principles that consistently support rural schools are accelerating progress, amplifying innovation, and acknowledging some situations are more dire than others, such as the circumstances in Holmes County, Mississippi, discussed by Dr. Devon Brenner in the first piece of this series. You can’t think about community development without education because it’s the hub of rural communities.  We can’t talk about what was, but what we are today and what we will be tomorrow. 

Jared Bigham is senior advisor on workforce and rural initiatives for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, board chair for the Tennessee Rural Education Association, and a member of the National Rural Education Advocacy Committee.

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.