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Challenges in Rural Education Explored at Askwith Forum

More than 21 percent of the nation's youth attend schools in rural areas, yet much of the research done in the field of education today focuses solely on urban school districts. This discrepancy as well as other issues unique to rural schools, were addressed at the April 21 Askwith Forum, Rural Education: Regional Challenges, Promising Solutions.

The diverse panel included Mil Duncan, founding director, Carsey Institute, University of New Hampshire; Francisco Guajardo, cofounder and executive director, Llano Grande Center for Research and Development; Leroy Johnson, executive director, Southern Echo; HGSE Lecturer Donna San Antonio, founder and executive director, Appalachian Mountain Teen Project; and Rachel Tompkins, Ed.D.'72, president, The Rural School and Community Trust.

Tompkins and Duncan highlighted the struggles that many rural communities face when it comes to educating their children. "Rural poverty continues to be an enormous deterrent to student success in school," said Tompkins. "The poorest children in America go to school in rural areas."

"A big problem is stagnant wages and the way globalization has caused the loss of many blue-collar jobs across rural America," added Duncan. "The absence of a strong middle class in poor areas leads to social isolation, a lack of role models, few networks for jobs, and too few resources committed to the common good." Despite these economic challenges, only 22 percent of federal education funds are directed toward rural school districts.

Recent demographic and environmental changes are also affecting the quality of education in rural America. An aging population, continuous youth outmigration, and acute stress on local and natural resources reinforce economic struggles and diminish hope for future prosperity.

Although rural communities across the nation face a number of common challenges, there exist different regional approaches to these issues. In northern New England, social capital is threatened but is "a key asset in economic development and a protective factor against chronic poverty," noted San Antonio. In her research, she has found that diversity awareness and cultural competence are essential to preserving and promoting social capital and growth in rural communities.

This is also true in southwestern states where those students who are academically successful rarely return to their hometowns. In its 10th year of existence, Guajardo's nonprofit development organization in Texas is run entirely by college-educated locals, and the school districts which it helps are seeing significant increases in graduation rates and college matriculation. A commitment to "getting to know one another and sharing stories in a trusting way," Guajardo said, is the first step towards academic success in rural areas where many of the students are recent immigrants.

Johnson, who works in Mississipi, cited economic injustice as the primary challenge for southern schools, and community organizing as the best strategy for combating it. By organizing the community, rural districts can "go from protest to policy, and from powerlessness to powerfulness." With these "4 P's", as Johnson called them, educators, parents, and students can come together "to make policy that makes a difference in the every day lives of the community."

Among the various challenges discussed by the panel, there was consensus about the single most promising solution for rural education: community involvement. Regardless of region or resources, community engagement in rural schools is a way to overcome local disadvantages and promote success.

"The most significant accountability system for public schools is an organized community of people who have high expectations for their students," said Tompkins. "If local people can get together and state what their expectations are for their students and have a conversation with the schools about how they are going to be successful and accountable, the expectations are generally very high."


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