Category Archives: Rural Education

How Four Rural Schools Reminded Me the Fundamentals of Quality Education

Over the past year, Kelly Robson, Brandon Lewis, and I visited charter schools in four rural communities across the country. As we drove into town to speak with school and community leaders, we expected to uncover challenges that rural charter schools face which are distinct from those in urban areas — and we did. Our findings are included in a new website and highlight some of the constraints specific to operating a charter school in a rural setting. 

But we also found many commonalities between what make these schools tick and the characteristics of successful schools in more urbanized settings. These commonalities were a useful reminder of some fundamental elements of a high-quality school that too often get lost in the shuffle. 

First, these schools were exemplars of consistent, local leadership.
Those we spoke to made it clear that their school’s success was enabled by local champions with sustained relationships to the community. The school staff had the community’s trust and confidence. Moreover, in three out of the four schools we visited, the school leader had been in their role for ten or more years, a startling contrast to the national average tenure of just over four years. Schools’ local leadership, and the stability of that leadership, helped the schools grow local roots and sustain their missions and visions. 

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Media: “Three Factors Critical to Rural Charter Schools’ Success” in EducationNext

As of the 2017-18 school year, 809 rural charter schools nationwide serve approximately 256,000 students. Though that’s only about one tenth of all charter schools and students nationwide, it represents substantial growth over the last decade.

Despite the growth, charter schools aren’t always a viable solution to a rural community’s education needs. They can negatively impact the enrollment and finances of local school districts, resulting in the closure or consolidation of long-standing community institutions.

But that’s not always the case. There are some rural communities where charters can and do work.

My team and I recently conducted in-depth case studies of four rural charter schools that are outperforming state and district averages in reading and math. Each of these schools serve a diverse student body. I have a piece in EducationNext today that discusses three factors that seem to facilitate the success of these rural charter schools:

  1. The founders, leaders, and/or board members of these schools have deep ties to the local community.
  2. These rural charter schools were founded as an explicit remedy to a gap in the community’s education offerings.
  3. These rural charter schools maintain consistent leadership and/or engagement with school founders.

Read the full piece at EdNext and learn more about rural charter schools on our new website, ruralcharterschools.org.

A Poor People’s Campaign for Education Reform? What We Can Learn from LBJ and MLK

On April 11, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson sat in front of a one-room schoolhouse in Stonewall, Texas — the rural setting where he received his formative education — and signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). By his side was his former teacher, an elderly white woman bedecked in pearls and cat-eye glasses, and a group of Mexican-American former students he had taught in the Texas border town of Cotulla. This framing was no accident: the undercurrents of Civil Rights policy were in the air as Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the previous summer. And to further spotlight race equity in the ESEA, the date was selected to fall nearly 100 years to the day that the Civil War concluded.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on April 11, 1965. Photo by Frank Wolfe / LBJ Library

Johnson was staunch about his commitment to education. In a March 1965 conversation with newly inaugurated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Johnson said: “Don’t ever argue with me. I’ll go a hundred million or a billion on health or education….Education and health. I’ll spend the goddamned money.” With ESEA’s role in providing significantly expanded resources (like library books, special education centers, and college scholarships) to vulnerable students, Johnson served as a human bridge between underserved populations: rural students, minorities, and immigrants. Looking at Johnson’s cleverly staged ESEA photo makes me think there are again opportunities for underserved student interests to unite in their demand for access to educational and economic equality. Identifying the intersection of class interests — as LBJ did — might have powerful political ramifications for the U.S. school system. 

A few years after the signing of the ESEA, Martin Luther King, Jr. carried the racial and economic unity torch forward. In 1968 he initiated the Poor People’s Campaign, which sought economic justice for the American poor. The first march of the Campaign included an interracial group of protestors — and would be King’s last. At his famous speech directed at striking Memphis sanitation workers, he urged:

We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves.

But what if the photo opp Johnson arranged in Stonewall or the Poor People’s movement King envisioned stepped off the pages of history? What would a united populist movement for education and economic equality look like? How would it affect the classrooms our children fill each morning and the neighborhoods they return to each afternoon? As schools begin de facto resegregating, how might a united front across all underrepresented classes and underfunded schools provide a more equal education for all? Continue reading

Media: “To reform education, Kentucky must focus on rural, impoverished schools” in the Louisville Courier Journal

We have an op-ed in today’s print and online editions of the Louisville Courier Journal about overlooked rural communities in Kentucky:

One-third of Kentucky’s student population, or almost 200,000 students, live in rural areas. In fact, half of Kentucky’s counties are rural, but you wouldn’t know this from the conversations about education in the media, among funders or between state policymakers.

Despite the concentration of rural students in Kentucky, education reform efforts continue to focus almost exclusively on two of the largest school districts in the state: Jefferson and Fayette counties. On top of that, the state’s existing reforms strategies don’t always reach rural communities or address their primary concerns.

Read our full op-ed here, and check out Bellwether’s new resource, “Education in the American South,” for more context.

65 Years Too Late: Education in the American South After Brown v. Board

65 years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, over 300 school districts remain under court desegregation orders, 88 percent of which are in the South. Alabama’s constitution still contains racist language about education, and around the U.S., schools and district attendance zones mirror the housing segregation in our communities. Brown v. Board’s anniversary earlier this month reminds us that the legacy of discriminatory in education, housing, and other social policies continues to challenge access and opportunity for a significant proportion of our students.

A new Bellwether analysis released last week illuminates challenges the American South continues to face and points to opportunities to better serve its students. In our slide deck, we examine education in the American South through regional and education trends and historical context. To highlight Southern states’ role in national education reform, we also describe key initiatives and policies that began in the South and expanded to the rest of the country. (Our definition of the South includes 15 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.)

The South is home to many promising solutions to help better serve minority and low-income students. For example, in charter schools in Texas, Florida, and New Orleans, African American and Hispanic students have demonstrated better performance in comparison to district-managed schools. In higher education, 90 of the remaining 102 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are located in the South. HBCUs produce 24 percent of black STEM graduates and confer almost 35 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned by black graduates in astronomy, biology, chemistry, math, and physics. Local investments have contributed to this progress, but national funding and philanthropy don’t always keep up with highest need areas in the South.

With 56 percent of all black students in the U.S. living in the South, as well as substantial portions of the nation’s English language learner and migrant student populations, funders, policymakers, and school leaders must acknowledge the persistence of segregation in the South and the failure to sufficiently support our students. We can’t wait another 65 years.

Read our comprehensive slide deck, “Education in the American South,” here and follow the conversation on Twitter at #EduSouth.