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Early Childhood

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Children’s early experiences have a profound impact on their future physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development. Studies indicate that providing high-quality education in the early years is the best investment we can make as a society to ensure future success. MAEC provides technical assistance and training to state departments of education, districts, schools, childcare centers, community organizations, and parents on key developmental and school readiness milestones.


Community Resource Mapping – Early Childhood

MAEC uses a strengths-based approach because we have learned that often times the best solutions come from within the communities in which our districts/schools reside. These key stakeholders include early childhood providers, districts, schools, communities, and families all who are seeking to improve school readiness. To this end, MAEC conducts community walks and community resource mapping to identify potential partners and allies for effective and efficient delivery of early childhood services.

Comprehensive Needs Assessment – Early Childhood

Beginning with a disaggregated data analysis of school readiness, program quality indicators, and demographic information, MAEC is able to effectively determine client strengths and areas of need. This collaborative inquiry approach enables MAEC to examine multiple sources of data. Using a culturally responsive and equity framework, further creates opportunities to develop operational action plans to tackle complex challenges that pose barriers to gains in early childhood.

Culturally Responsive Family, School, and Community Engagement – Early Childhood

A family is a child’s first teacher. When families’ partner with early childhood centers, schools, and community organizations, children thrive. To produce the best results for children, MAEC builds the capacity of families, early childhood providers, schools, and community organizations to collaborate, exchange ideas, and develop and implement policies and action plans. We build on the collaborative strengths of families, educators and early childhood providers so they can each contribute to the development and success of diverse young children.

Culturally Responsive Leadership – Early Childhood

Leaders set the tone and expectations of any organization. They do this by responding effectively to the diverse communities that they serve, being asset-focused, and proactive problem solvers. Culturally responsive leadership technical assistance provides a multi-dimensional framework that builds capacity of early childhood leaders who are culturally informed and highly skilled in culturally responsive practice.

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy – Early Childhood

Culturally responsive pedagogy is a method and practice of teaching in which early childhood educators and providers build on the assets that their children and families bring into the classroom. As the populations of our students grow more diverse, early childhood educators and providers must be better prepared to respond to their needs. This requires a greater understanding and knowledge of their students’ communities’ culture, strengths, and socio-political contexts. With this practice, childcare centers and schools can become hubs of learning focused on the well being of the children and families being served.

Policy & Procedural Reviews – Early Childhood

In educational systems, policies and procedures often inform practice. However, some policies or procedures may have unintended consequences when implemented that serve to further silo organizational efforts to close opportunity gaps. To address this challenge, MAEC provides state departments, districts, early childhood centers, schools, and organizations with policy and procedural reviews to ensure they are equitable, effective, and comply with federal, state, and local laws and regulations.

Entre Nosotros, Between Us: Transitions into Kindergarten: Trainer-of-Trainers

Entre Nosotros was developed as a trainer-of-trainers curriculum to prepare childcare providers, early childhood centers, preschools, and kindergarten educators with parent workshops aimed at easing the transition into kindergarten. The five two hour lessons cover topics such as: (1) Importance of family engagement in student success; (2) Tips for School Success, including explanation of cultural expectations for new immigrant parents; (3) Communication & Positive Discipline; (4) Home Support for Learning; and (5) Family Literacy & Celebration! This curriculum is available in English and Spanish.

Informed Parents, Successful Children: Trainer-of-Trainers (IPSC)

Originally developed in partnership with the Maryland State Department of Education, IPSC promotes the positive development and school readiness of young children by delivering training to parents, family day care providers, and community based organizations serving linguistically diverse families. IPSC materials include a Trainer of Trainer’s Guide in English and Spanish and Child Development Pamphlets for parents in English, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and French. The culturally responsive workshops aim to encourage children’s cognitive, physical, socio-emotional, language, and literacy development. The curricula is divided into activities for ages 0-6 months, 6-12 months, 12-18 months, 18 months-3 years, and 3 yrs-5yrs old. The user friendly materials provide trainers and parents with developmentally appropriate and fun activities using items commonly found in parents’ homes.

Maryland State Department of Education

MAEC partnered with the Maryland State Department of Education’s Early Childhood Family Engagement Coalition to create a Family Engagement Framework. MAEC has begun work to develop and implement a state-wide Family Engagement Plan aimed at:

  • Assisting service providers in self-assessing their family engagement capacity and quality;
  • Improving the ability of families to navigate systems and achieve goals in the areas of education, health, and economic security;
  • Supporting effective child/family transitions from early childhood programs (Infant/Toddlers, Home Visiting, childcare, preschool, etc.) to school;
  • Implementing equitable policies, procedures, and practices into early childhood programs; and
  • Supporting early childhood providers to work effectively with culturally and linguistically diverse families and students so that they feel welcome and their cultural backgrounds are valued.
Implementation will focus on four key areas: 1) Development of training and technical assistance resources to implement strategies from the Framework; 2) Development of family leaders; 3) Support to other states in the development of statewide family engagement practices to establish and share relevant and innovative family engagement strategies through the use of the technology and social media; and 4) Development and implementation of effective methods for evaluating the positive impacts of family engagement to promote  healthy child development and school readiness.

Post Image 21st-Century Learning at Home: A Guide for Families and Caregivers of English Learners to Support Project-Based Learning at Home

This CAFE guide is designed for families and caregivers to support and lead English Learners through projects at home. The activities within the guide promote communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking while engaging with a child’s culture, family background, and home languages. Each project has the following sections: the purpose of the project, materials suggested, questions for children, instruction to complete each section, and additional activities and resources. Children can complete projects individually or in groups, with more adult support for younger children. In this guide, the term “family member” includes parents, extended family, and caregivers, as we recognize that families are defined in many ways.


Post Image Building Leaders: An Educator’s Guide to Family Leadership

Develop family leadership programs that increase engagement and support for families in positive ways using inclusive and diversity-focused strategies. Learn how to update family leadership programs to consider students' and families' diverse knowledge and tools for success. A successful leadership program must identify and work with a family's unique needs, experience, and knowledge to establish a strong relationship and trust. Educators can use the MAEC Family Engagement Model to transform family leadership programs for inclusivity using intentionally collaborative approaches that focus on relationship building, knowledge and skills, confidence and efficacy, and advocacy. This resource offers detailed overviews of 12 family leadership models addressing the needs of diverse populations, testimonial insights from educators and family leaders, and resources for each area of the model.


Post Image Gaining Ground on Equity for Rural Schools and Communities

MAEC’s Dr. Heather Biggar Tomlinson contextualizes the unique challenges and strengths that characterize rural communities and education in the United States. She examines racial diversity, poverty, intersecting discrimination, resource allocation for schools, broadband connectivity, access to high-quality child care, health services, and other topics impacting families in rural areas. Back to Count Us In: Advancing Equity in Rural Schools and Communities  

Gaining Ground on Equity for Rural Schools and Communities

September 2020: Exploring Equity Issues, Rural Edition Heather Biggar Tomlinson, Ph.D.Heather Tomlinson Senior Specialist, Early Childhood and Family Engagement, MAEC Mountainous Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, the wide-open Great Plains, remote Alaska, lush Hawaii, and pastoral New England all evoke images of rural America, but they are unique regions with distinct differences in people, values, landscapes, and lifestyles. These and the many other pockets of rural America showcase diverse economic engines, natural resources, affluence or poverty levels, demographics, and cultures. Yet there are commonalities that transcend the distinctions to connect rural areas and create an overarching entity that collectively identifies as “rural America.”  One in five Americans, or about 60 million people, lives in a rural area. Because 97% of the nation’s landmass is considered rural, by definition these areas are sparsely populated and far from urban centers (United States Census Bureau, 2017). Although rural school districts are small—median enrollment is fewer than 500 students—the overall numbers are not: 28.5% of schools are rural and 9.3 million students attend them (Showalter, Hartman, Johnson, & Klein, 2019). The well-being and success of rural students is a critical determinant of the well-being and success of the nation as a whole. Unfortunately, one of the commonalities connecting rural areas is a lack of access to services, infrastructure, and equitable policies and practices. This article provides an overview of how equity relates to rural America and its students and schools. While rural America has been overlooked and marginalized as a whole in many ways, there are layers of discrimination and disadvantage within that broader marginalization. Many of the inequities could be ameliorated by improved policies, approaches, and relationships between institutions that tackle inequities systemically. We examine the intersections of diversity and equity in rural communities and explain how these concepts dovetail, concentrating on five examples of inequity: resource allocation, physical and mental health services, support for the educator workforce, access to high-quality child care, and cultivating college readiness. The hope is that by better connecting the dots between equitable policies and stakeholders, and between love of place and the need for excellent educational opportunities, it’s possible to see the potential of schools, communities, and states to give all rural students a chance to flourish.

Diversity and Equity in Rural America

Diversity shows up in multiple dimensions. Students in rural areas may be racially diverse and linguistically diverse, diverse in gender and sexual identity, physical and intellectual ability, religious background, from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and family composition, and more. Students from non-dominant backgrounds may face layers of discrimination and disadvantage.

Racial Diversity

The narrative addressing rural communities has been oversimplified. The lack of nuance in the narratives can lead to false assumptions and prejudices. Although images in the popular press often present a narrow version of rural America, with a tendency to focus on poor, White communities, the nation’s contemporary rural student body is richly diverse and multifaceted. The Rural School and Community Trust (RSCT) gives the U.S. a racial diversity index of 31.9, meaning that if someone randomly chose two students from a rural district, there would be an approximately one-third chance that those students would be of different races. However, the average belies a big range. According to the RSCT, in Maine, for example, racial diversity is low (10.7%), whereas in Delaware, the percentage is much more significant (56.8%). And within districts, the range is even greater. For example, in Pocantico Hills, New York, there is a diversity index of 67.7 (that is, a two-thirds chance that two students in a school would be of different races), whereas in 172 other districts, there is no racial diversity—meaning a school’s student population might be entirely White, Hispanic, Black or Tribal. Overall, however, there is extraordinary diversity within rural America as a whole, and within some districts, specifically. Indeed, the three most diverse school districts in the nation are rural (Showalter et al., 2019).


There are other kinds of diversity as well, including socioeconomic.  Affluence exists but pervasive and persistent poverty has plagued some rural regions for generations. Overall, 15.4% of rural school-aged children in the United States live in poverty (Showalter et al., 2019). Some states, particularly in New England, have low rates of rural child poverty (e.g., Massachusetts, 3.5%) and some rural areas are amenity rich with abundant natural resources that bring in agricultural, recreational, and tourism benefits. Other states with large rural populations have distressing child poverty rates. For example, in the South, Mississippi’s rate is 23.1% and Louisiana’s is 22.9%. In Appalachia, Kentucky’s rural child poverty rate is 21.6%. In the Southwest, 23.3% of rural children in Arizona and 29.7% in New Mexico live in poverty. In these areas, families have a median income of $30,000 (versus $54,000 nationally); working-age men have disabilities at more than twice the rate than in other areas, reaching almost one-quarter of the population; about four in ten children live in poverty; and one in five adults do not complete high school (Florida, 2018). More than eight out of ten of the nation’s persistently poor counties are rural (Schull, 2019). For these areas, poverty can be a legacy that is difficult to overcome.

“Layers within Layers of Discrimination”

Within the broad layer of inequities that rural residents often face—less access to high-quality child care, schools, healthcare, mental health supports, employment opportunities, professional development supports, transportation infrastructure, cultural amenities, and so forth—are deeper layers of prejudice and discrimination that disproportionately affect non-dominant groups.  These groups might include students living in poverty, people of color, LGBTQIA+ families, individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities, families from underrepresented religious backgrounds, newcomers, migrant families, and English learners. Rural scholars often refer to the “layers within layers of discrimination” in rural communities (Erin McHenry-Sorber, personal communication, 2020).  MAEC’s vision is that all children, regardless of race, gender, religion, national origin, home language, or socioeconomic status, have the right to learn and achieve at high levels. While rural residents are not protected as a class by federal civil rights law, many factors that intersect with rural settings exacerbate discrimination and harassment. Rural communities have children of all races and religions. Their families come from myriad countries and speak as many languages. They have diverse gender identities and sexual orientations. They experience varying levels of affluence, poverty, and educational levels. All of these factors produce the potential for bias and marginalization. These layers within and across rural communities represent the rich diversity of rural America, but they also present platforms for ongoing inequity and the necessity for effective and equitable policies and practices.  Equity is not the same as equality. Unfortunately, many educational goals are driven by equality, where goods or services are distributed without consideration for varied student strengths and needs rooted in widely differing starting places. Equity is driven by student strengths and needs, providing what each person needs in order to thrive. This means that some schools and students would be well served by receiving more than others, depending on unmet needs, with the goal that all rural students have comparable access to excellent educational opportunities. While this idea is easily understood, it is difficult to implement because it requires that administrators distribute resources differentially. Frequently, what rural Americans have failed to receive through equitable policies and practices they have substituted with ingenuity, resourcefulness, and a deep sense of community and commitment. However, in order to sustain these practices, institutional policies must support and enhance individual creativity and grit.

Challenges for Rural Educators and Students

Schools provide more than education in all types of communities, and in rural areas, they are particularly important for the well-being of students and communities. They often represent the heart of community life. They provide avenues for dissemination of critical health, food, housing, counseling, employment, and other resources. They link families to essential services. Schools serve as social, health, and cultural centers as well, hosting family and sporting events, job fairs, health and wellness clinics and, in this era, COVID testing sites. As a result, rural educators and administrators feel pressure to do more and be more than is expected in other school communities (McHenry-Sorber & Sutherland, 2020). At the same time, the equity-based challenges remain, including the distribution of money and other resources, access to health services, support for educators, access to child care, and opportunities to develop college readiness.

Resource Allocation

Resources come in many forms. Resources that are critical to rural schools include funding and digital connectivity.


Adequate funding is a necessary foundation without which schools cannot thrive. Pre-COVID-19, rural school districts received on average 16.9% of state education funds, in spite of the fact that 28.5% of schools are designated as rural; data show that 15.4% of students attend schools in rural districts, but some rural schools are located in districts not designated as rural (U.S. Department of Education, 2014-2015). In spite of these disparities, serving rural students can also include additional costs such as steep transportation expenses that shift money away from instruction and student learning resources. On average, rural school districts spend $1.00 on transportation for every $10.81 spent on instruction, and in some instances the ratio is worse, such as West Virginia ($6.48) and New Mexico ($6.17) (Showalter et al., 2019).      Districts that serve large numbers of low-income students and students of color on average receive $1,800 less per student than districts serving few students of color (Darling-Hammond, Schachner, & Edgerton, 2020). COVID-19 greatly exacerbates the problem. Consequently, administrators in low-income and racially diverse schools can expect significant economic stress in the coming years. Declining enrollment rates were already forcing district leaders to make painful decisions about school consolidation. Facing challenges with data reporting given sample sizes will also add heavier financial burdens to the resource stress. In response, education leaders are calling for the adoption of more equitable state school funding formulas that are weighted for poverty, English proficiency, foster care or homeless status, and special education status. As highlighted by the Learning Policy Institute, “In large states, this might be further adjusted for geographic cost differentials, while also taking into account the transportation and other needs of sparse, rural districts” (Darling-Hammond et al., 2020, p. 103). To save money and reduce the costs of facilities, teachers and administrators, food services, and other resources, many districts rely on consolidating schools in order to preserve capital. However, there are equity issues with consolidation. School districts with large populations of students of color and children living in poverty tend to do better academically in smaller schools, whereas school consolidation tends to widen achievement gaps. Over one-quarter of rural students spend more than one hour each way getting to and from school, and 85% spend at least 30 minutes each way commuting (Lavalley, 2018). Longer bus rides and longer days mean rural students have less time than others to spend on homework, extracurricular activities, participation in academic support programs, sleep, and family and community activities. These greater distances may also prohibit families and community members from attending on-site activities at school, which can affect optimal family and community engagement in education. Ironically, longer commutes increase costs for districts, decreasing the financial benefits of consolidation.

Broadband and Connectivity

COVID-19 shines a spotlight on continuous and new layers of inequities, not least of which is the long-standing concern for rural communities about internet connectivity. Access to devices and broadband is essential as education, health care, and other services pivot to virtual platforms. Although this reliance on digital and online learning is challenging for everyone, rural communities are disproportionately affected. In 2017, there were over 23 million Americans without reliable Internet and 68% of them lived in rural areas (Lavalley, 2018). During the school closures in Spring 2020, rural school districts were much less likely than urban districts to provide students with hotspots or devices, such as tablets, and 31% of rural parents reported needing public Wifi for students to do homework, more than non-rural counterparts (Opalka, Gable, Nicola, & Ash, 2020; Vogels, Perrin, Rainie, & Anderson, 2020). Rural teachers were far less likely than urban teachers, with a 25-point gap, to be required to continue to monitor student progress, and only 25% expected to continue to provide instruction, as compared to over half of urban teachers (Gross & Opalka, 2020). This gap may be due to the challenges for rural teachers to work from home where they too lack connectivity. Even when students and teachers have access to devices, high-speed internet is often not available across large tracts of countryside, making streaming and other educational services difficult or impossible to access.

Physical and Mental Health Services

Inequitable access to, and quality of, health care services is a hardship for many rural communities. Even before COVID-19, rural communities’ access to quality health care was inadequate for dealing with higher than average rates of heart disease, cancer, stroke, opioid overdose, respiratory disease, injuries, and other problems. Rural children with mental health issues or behavioral and developmental disorders face greater community and family challenges than other children (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2017). The pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges to provide health care to patients with COVID-19 in rural communities: fewer hospital beds, less equipment, and fewer health care workers. The virus has been equally pernicious, impairing mental health, as the fallout of job losses, isolation, anxiety, depression, grief from losing loved ones, and missed educational opportunities surges through rural communities. Clinicians report that rising rates of family stress are likely increasing the rates of domestic violence and substance abuse, while services to address these concerns remain difficult to access (Abramson, 2020). Significantly, health care professionals, child care providers, mail delivery personnel, agricultural workers, and other essential workers living in rural communities face the same toxic stressors as others, while simultaneously experiencing the stress of high rates of exposure to the virus. They may face terrible choices between preserving their livelihoods and risking their lives. These are equity issues that could be ameliorated by increased investments in infrastructure and training to provide more hospitals, mental health services, health care professionals, and transportation services needed to access them. 

Supporting the Educator Workforce

Many rural school districts struggle to maintain a highly qualified workforce and excellent and equitable schools, and rural district leaders have trouble recruiting and retaining teachers. The United States has seen teacher shortages in recent years: While the number of teachers has increased in the last few years, the nation still has 40,000 fewer public school teachers than it did prior to the 2008 recession, in large part because of school budget cuts (Darling-Hammond et al., 2020). Rural communities have been hit harder than others with the combination of budget issues and concomitant teacher shortages.  The teacher strikes that swept the nation in 2018 and 2019 reflected decreases in teacher wages, among other deprioritizing of education. This engendered deep frustration, particularly in historically poor and isolated rural school districts.  Erin McHenry-Sorber, professor at the University of West Virginia, highlighted the effects of teacher shortages and general devaluation of the teaching profession in rural communities. She described the intersection this way:
…Rural communities across the state, particularly those once dependent on industries such as coal, have experienced a protracted state of economic depression and increased poverty and opioid addiction -- a consequence of Americans' willingness to accept West Virginia as one of the nation's economic sacrifice zones… In the midst of economic stagnation and diminished workers' rights, these rural West Virginians find themselves marginalized economically and socially, pushing back against normalized epithets of "hillbillies" and "rednecks," at the same time they're fighting for their economic survival (McHenry-Sorber, 2018).
The economics of devaluing the education profession hits all household budgets hard—women teachers earn 15.6% less than similarly educated women in other professions and, for men, the wage gap jumps to 26.8% (Wolf, 2019)—but in rural communities, the problem is worse. Rural school districts are at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to compensating teachers. According to the Rural School and Community Trust, rural educators earn $69,797 compared to $74,153 for suburban educators (Showalter et al., 2019). Teachers may also be unwilling to move to areas with limited social and cultural opportunities and the low salaries that many rural school districts offer are not much of an enticement. Although salary and benefits are critical, researchers also cite administrative support as important determinants of rural teachers’ employment decisions. The role of principals matters in how they provide mentorship, create trusting relationships, are positive and collaborative, establish an open work culture with strong communication, and support teaching preparation and professional development opportunities (Tran & Dou, 2019). Rural principals, however, are paid less than other principals and experience the same challenges as their teachers, while holding greater responsibilities. Rural educators lack access to professional development and may struggle to find ways to collaborate with peers. Specialized teachers, such as those focusing on special education, art, and music, often serve multiple schools and must make long drives, isolating them professionally. There are frequently fewer resources to support culturally and linguistically responsive approaches, including interpreters and language and literacy programs for adults.  At times, there are few community partners to support housing and food services, health care, substance abuse programs, parenting education, adult cultural activities, and other necessary and enriching activities. These challenges for the workforce, and inability to address community-wide issues, affect classroom quality and student experiences and outcomes.

Access to High-Quality Child Care

More than 1.1 million families with young children live in rural areas (Paschall, Halle, & Maxwell, 2020). America’s mixed-delivery approach to early care and education takes a toll on rural families because of the gaps in service provision, the range of quality of programs, and the resulting differences in school readiness outcomes. Child care deserts are areas in which there are three infants or children for each spot available within a reasonable distance. There are simply more programs available in metropolitan areas: compared to rural areas, high-density urban areas offer 2.85 times the number of centers, 3.20 times the number of listed home-based providers, and 6.87 times the number of unlisted paid home-based providers (Paschall et al., 2020).  The younger the child, the more difficult it is for parents to find out-of-home care, an issue that is again more challenging in rural areas.  Over half (55%) of rural Americans live in a child care desert, a percentage that is certain to increase in the wake of COVID-19 child care closures. Child care programs run on thin financial margins, and home-based providers typically have the least room for financial disruption.  Widespread closures of home-based programs will make stability and recovery in the wake of the pandemic especially hard for rural communities. Rural working mothers rely disproportionately on home-based care—serving 22% of rural preschoolers versus 10% of metropolitan preschoolers (Schochet, 2019).  Family child care programs—with the great majority unlisted—play an outsized role in rural child care options; unlisted programs may not meet licensing or accreditation standards that assure health and safety, curricular and other benchmarks (Paschall et al., 2020; Shochet, 2019). In short, family child care programs are often well suited for rural communities—they may be offered by a known community member, closer to the home, and more affordable—but they may also be of lower quality.  For many rural families, accessing employment and child care simultaneously is a “chicken and egg” problem that is difficult to solve. As compared to women living in other localities, women in rural areas tend to have low-paying jobs, work part-time, and work long and non-standard hours (Paschall et al., 2020), making it difficult to find child care that fits both a family’s working hours and budget. In addition, rural families typically pay a higher percentage of their income toward child care (12.2%) than do urban families (10.8%)—for comparison, the federal government recommends that child care should not account for more than 7% of a household budget (Schochet, 2019). Not having access to high-quality early childhood education, whether because of availability, quality or affordability, interferes with children’s readiness for kindergarten. This lack of access can determine the trajectory of rural children’s educational journey. For rural students experiencing poverty, this puts them at an even greater disadvantage. A nationally representative study of over 6,000 students found that disadvantaged home environments, coupled with lack of access to high-quality child care, left rural children behind in terms of academic achievement (Miller & Votruba-Drzal, 2013). Recent analyses echo this finding. On average, on standardized test scores, rural students living in poverty score below their rural classmates who do not live in poverty. However, this gap is large in some states, such as Maryland, and narrow in others, such as Pennsylvania. These inequities highlight the need for policies and practices to ensure that the highest need students receive the most support in order to thrive (Showalter et al., 2019). 

Cultivating College Readiness

School structures, processes, and cultures affect student dispositions and their opportunities to learn. Students from rural communities have challenges obtaining support to effectively prepare for success after high school. They may have less access to highly competent PK-12 teachers, high-speed broadband, college guidance counselors, college interest and recruitment of rural students, or career and vocational education opportunities. Rural students graduate from high school at relatively high rates, 88.7% nationally (although some areas have considerably lower rates of high school graduation, particularly in rural Alaska, which has a 72.3% graduation rate). They also participate in dual high school/college courses, Advanced Placement exams, or commonly used college admissions tests such as the ACT and SAT (see Showalter et al., 2019, for details).  However, in spite of graduation rates and high-level coursework, compared to their non-rural peers, rural graduates have lower rates of college enrollment and college graduation.  Part of the discrepancy may stem from lower expectations from teachers or high teacher turnover that diminishes instructional quality. As one writer noted, “Students know they're falling behind. ‘When I get to college, I've got to take college math,’ Cierra said. ‘But how am I supposed to do that if I don't know basics?’” (Hanford, 2018). A study of African American rural students in the southeastern U.S. found that students lacked access to rigorous courses, had little time with guidance counselors advising them on good-fit colleges, and were concerned about being out of place on campuses lacking diversity (Morales, 2016).  A systemic equity-based response to this issue would be to ensure rural high schools have the resources they need to dismantle barriers to successful college enrollment and college graduation. For example, college counselors in high schools are associated with a 10% increase in college enrollment (Quintero & Gu, 2019). High-speed broadband access is critical to college readiness as test preparation courses, dual credit courses, and other learning opportunities have become available online. Rural students, with their lack of broadband access, miss the opportunity to engage with them. In the face of almost universal school closures, broadband access has leapt to the top of the policy priority list to support educational opportunities, including opportunities for college readiness. If this issue is not addressed quickly, not only will children in the earliest years of their educational journey get off to a less than optimal start, but also high schoolers will fall behind as schooling moves almost completely to virtual learning in the COVID-19 era. 

Connecting the Dots

To achieve meaningful, sustainable equity-based policies and practices, stakeholders need to connect the dots so that all voices are heard, place-based strengths are emphasized, and positive relationships take root or grow stronger. A mantra of some educators is that no meaningful learning takes place outside of meaningful relationships. The degree of progress and success rural children are likely to experience is grounded in their experiences with healthy families, schools, and communities that come together through relationships (and policies) that support their well-being in ways that both undergird and transcend academics. Relationships among committed adults and institutions enable communities to care for students as whole people. Relationships lead to support for students’ basic needs—secure housing, fresh and affordable food, health care, supportive parenting, income stability, addiction- and abuse-free homes, mental health, freedom from fears of family separation or deportation, language access—factors that are inextricably linked to students’ ability to learn and achieve.  Areas where rural students are achieving well, it’s likely there are equitable policies, structures, and priorities. Students are able to make and maintain positive relationships. Appropriate and fair funding and resources, positive working conditions and fair wages for educators, high-speed broadband access, and investments in kindergarten and college readiness for all rural students are examples of equity operationalized through policies and practices. These equitable approaches are built on three salient dimensions: 1) Removing the predictability of academic success or failure based on social, economic, regional, or cultural factors; 2) interrupting inequitable practices, eliminating biases and oppression and creating inclusive school environments for adults and children; and 3) discovering and cultivating the unique gifts, talents, and interests that each human being possesses. This equitable and asset-based approach will expand opportunities for rural children to grow and succeed, and will harvest benefits for rural communities, the nation, the economy, and future generations. Residents in rural communities support each other, and they often have a deep affection for their home towns and neighbors. We see this through advocacy and the collective organizing of creative, generous, and spirited activities that lift up rural community members—witness teacher strikes to improve working conditions for educators, annual local festivals, effective school and athletic fundraisers, and the recent anti-racism rallies. Rural communities thrive when their unique voices, contexts, and circumstances are viewed as a source of expertise, and connection to place can be at the center of any transformation of schools. To connect the dots creatively and beneficially does not mean “improving” aspects of rural living that arguably enhance family, student, and educational experiences. Rather it means creatively leveraging communities’ strengths and advantages to deepen connections to both place and educational success—and providing resources equitably to make that possible.  Appalachian author Robert Gipe started the “Higher Ground Project” in Kentucky that enables community and technical college students to braid scholarly studies of the region with personal art and writings that express their experiences in rural America, “on topics ranging from drug abuse to the challenges of remaining and working in a job-challenged area, to local history of Black coal miners and their families. In other words, town and gown are connected” (Branscombe, 2020). Indeed, connecting students to the assets within reach in their communities and expanding the reach so that dynamic, meaningful educational opportunities exist for every rural student—connecting town and gown, connecting place and educational success—is our path to higher ground.


Abramson, A. (2020, April 8). How COVID-19 may increase domestic violence and child abuse. American Psychological Association. Retrieved August 2020 from Branscombe, J. (2020, August 28). Review: An Anthology of Appalachian Literature Walks on New Ground. The Daily Yonder: Keep It Rural. Retrieved August 2020 from Darling-Hammond, L., Schachner, A., & Edgerton, A. (2020, August). Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID and Beyond. Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from Florida, R. (2018, June 1). The Three Rural Americas. Bloomberg City Lab. Retrieved August 2020 from Gross, B., & Opalka, A. (2020). Too Many Schools Leave Learning to Chance. Center for Reinventing Public Education. Retrieved from Hanford, E. (2018, August 28). Schools in poor, rural districts are the hardest hit by nation's growing teacher shortage. American Public Media Reports. Retrieved August 2020 from Lavalley, M. (2018). Out of the Loop: Rural schools are largely left out of research and policy discussions, exacerbating poverty, inequity, and isolation. National School Boards Association Center for Public Education. Retrieved from McHenry-Sorber, E. (2018, March 6). The West Virginia Teachers Have Launched a Movement. CNN. Retrieved August 2020 from McHenry-Sorber, E & Sutherland, D. (2020) Equity and Expectations: Leading Rural Communities through Unprecedented Pressures. MAEC, Inc. Retrieved September 2020 from Miller, P., & Votruba-Drzal, E. (2013). Early academic skills and childhood experiences across the urban–rural continuum. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(2), 234-248. Morales, K. (2016, August 31). Study: Rural location, race influence students’ access to college. University of Georgia Today. Retrieved August 2020 from Opalka, A., Gable, A., Nicola, T., & Ash, J. (2020). Rural School Districts Can be Creative in Solving the Internet Connectivity Gap--But They Need Support. Brookings. Retrieved from Paschall, K., Halle, T., & Maxwell, K. (2020). Early Care and Education in Rural Communities. Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from Quintero, D., & Gu, Y. (2019, July 3). Rural Schools Need Career Counselors Too. Brookings. Retrieved August 2020 from Schochet, L. (2019, June 4). 5 Facts to Know About Child Care in Rural America. Center for American Progress. Retrieved August 2020 from Schull, M. (2019, August 8). Expanding Early Childhood Education in Rural America. New America. Retrieved August 2020 from Showalter, D., Hartman, S. L., Johnson, J., & Klein, B. (2019). Why Rural Matters 2018-2019: The Time is Now. The Rural School and Community Trust & The School Superintendents Association. Retrieved from Tran, H., & Dou, J. (2019). An Exploratory Examination of What Types of Administrative Support Matter for Rural Teacher Talent Management: The Rural Educator Perspective. Educational Leadership Review, 20(1), 133-149. U.S. Department of Education. (2014-2015). Common Core of Data, Public School Universe. National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (2017). About Rural Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from United States Census Bureau. (2017, August 9). What Is Rural America? Retrieved August 2020 from Vogels, E., Perrin, A., Rainie, L., & Anderson, M. (2020, April 30). 53% of Americans Say the Internet Has Been Essential During the COVID-19 Outbreak. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from Wolf, A. B. (2019, February 23). Why Teacher Strikes Are Touching Every Part of America. CNN. Retrieved August 2020 from      

Download: Gaining Ground on Equity for Rural Schools and Communities

Post Image Growing Up Rural: Inequity for Young Children and Child Care Providers

In their research- and narrative-filled article, Dr. Beverly Boals Gilbert and Dr. Cathy Grace call for action in providing resources to people living in the rural Mississippi Delta. Dr. Grace draws from personal stories growing up and teaching in rural Arkansas, describing the moment she recognized her own learning gaps, the impact of the district’s decision not to integrate schools, and what it was like teaching students without the necessary tools. The authors also draw from other personal stories, including responses from child care professionals who are struggling during COVID-19 closures. Back to Count Us In: Advancing Equity in Rural Schools and Communities  

Growing Up Rural: Inequity for Young Children and Child Care Providers 

September 2020: Exploring Equity Issues, Rural Edition Beverly Boals Gilbert, Ed.D. Professor, Early Childhood Education, Arkansas State University and Cathy Grace, Ed.D. Co-Director, Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning, University of Mississippi, North Mississippi Education Consortium Growing up in rural Arkansas and Mississippi, we did not know what we did not know. We knew about dirt roads, walking the railroad tracks, church socials, Dick and Jane basal readers, and how to shell peas. We didn’t know how isolated we were, what a public transportation system looked like, and what a rigorous curriculum required. One of the things about being a young child who lives in a rural community where everyone has the same life as you, or worse, is that you don’t know you’re being left behind or left out.

Cathy’s Story

[caption id="attachment_4481" align="alignright" width="299"]Old newspaper clipping showing one of the author's sitting in her old "school". This was taken 45 years ago at my Daddy’s store. I am on the left, a parent is in the middle, and the county librarian is on the right. This was my first ”kindergarten.” The children would walk to Daddy’s store and we would read and learn basic skills like ABC’s. They would all receive a complimentary ice cream at the end of the weekly “class.” The librarian would leave a shelf of books for the children to check out and return during the week.[/caption] My family was fortunate. Even if I did bathe in a tin tub until I was 3, my family had a television with three channels from Memphis, and we had a truck. My mother, as I got older, was determined I was to participate in activities held 12 miles away in a town of about 5,000 people. I was not totally isolated.  Not everyone was so fortunate. You could see this in simple ways, like when someone needed to visit the doctor in town. When my brother or I needed our tetanus booster or polio vaccine, my daddy would take us. Other children without transportation also depended on my daddy and his truck to take them to town for doctor visits and other “serious” errands. If we needed health care, we would all come to depend on anyone with transportation since there was no such thing as a transit system. It is the same way today in many areas, even with telemedicine. I attended the school for the “country kids” from the first through sixth grades. Most of us rode a school bus, and on my 45-minute daily ride to school, I discovered how unfair the world was, and how mean children could be to those who were different. The “back of the bus” kids knew their place because they were shamed by comments made by others regarding hygiene and outward appearance. In the 1950s, schools in Arkansas were not racially integrated, so my first encounter with inequity was a close-up view of race-driven poverty and the crippling effect it had on the self-esteem and social development of many of my peers.   I made good grades in elementary school, and my third grade teacher rewarded me by giving me extra jobs like starting a school library and serving as a substitute teacher for my peers for two weeks. My good grades came to a screeching halt when I entered junior high school, when children from all over the district converged at one “city” school. The rigor of the curriculum and expectations of my previous small-town teachers were less than those in the city school, and it showed in the learning gaps I had to overcome. These learning gaps are still plaguing rural school children today as a result of myriad funding issues and federal, state, and local policies within public school systems.  During my third grade experience as a two-week substitute teacher, I realized I was destined to become a teacher. After a detour, I graduated college and returned home in the early 1970s as a first grade teacher in a rural school about 5 miles from my childhood home. In the middle of a cotton field, with no air conditioning in the classroom or trees for shade, where 100% of the children lived in poverty, I quickly realized that conditions had to change. After two years of teaching and working on my graduate degree, I received a grant to fund a summer kindergarten program for the community children. It was extremely successful, and the data we collected persuaded the school district to begin full-day kindergarten two years later.   The first grade children I taught in the Mississippi Delta in the mid 1970s lacked the benefit of an early childhood kindergarten experience, just like many children in Arkansas. Schools were under a court order to integrate, but it was clear the district was not interested nor was integration enforced. Of the 1,000 children in grades 1-6 in the school, 99.9% were African American and receiving free lunch. Given that we were a high-poverty, high-minority enrollment school, we got the “leftovers” and broken instructional equipment, as well as incomplete curriculum materials. We had the same materials as other elementary schools in the district, but the condition of the materials was not the same. With a cigar box and rubber bands as my speaker for the “reading machine,” I was expected to teach phonics. 

The Importance of Defining Rurality and Counting Rural Kids

In 2020, thousands of children living in rural America experience the same challenges of isolationism, poverty, and family dysfunction that we did decades earlier. The differences are even greater because of the digital divide and resource gaps.  Some students have limited or no access to technology, failing to expose them to a life outside the 10-mile radius of their home. Others may have broadband, if their families can afford it, but do they have the support needed to master their online lessons? In spite of technology, have they learned more? Has the introduction of technology actually broadened the learning gap? Some of the answers depend on resources, and resources depend on numbers, which can be a problem for rural communities. The U.S. Census Bureau has defined rural as “all population, housing, and territory not included within an urbanized area or urban cluster” (Ratcliffe et. al, 2016). There are many classifications for rural, typically based on population density, urbanization, and daily commuting patterns. Defining rural is important because population counts, determined by the Census, are tied to the amount of funding allocated by various federal programs serving children and families, the flexibility of how funds may be spent, and representative voice in Congress. Formulas for funding of local education agencies and basic needs are determined by the Census count, including funding of programs such as Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), free- or reduced-priced school lunches for low-income children, teacher training programs, as well as infrastructure programs such as roads and bridges (America Counts, 2020). The historical undercounting of rural children continues to negatively impact the allocation of funds for these children. Reports such as The Undercount of Young Children, released by the Census Bureau in 2014, and the American Community Survey detail how the undercounting of children, especially those birth through 4-years old, negatively impacts rural communities (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2014). According to the Urban Institute, in 21 states the share of the rural population living in hard-to-count areas exceeds the share of the urban population living in hard-to-count areas. In rural areas in New Mexico and Louisiana, for example, approximately half of residents live in a hard-to-count census tract. In rural Hawaii, that share is nearly three-quarters (Gold & Su, 2019).   Various theories are offered as to the lack of participation in rural areas. Common reasons include that many residents use post office boxes rather than physical addresses for mail delivery, making it difficult for enumerators to locate residents; residents fear sharing personal information with the government; and families lack access to complete the Census data online. COVID-19 has exacerbated problems because it is difficult for the U.S. Census Office to secure and keep enumerators employed in isolated areas. The process of collecting data in 2020 is more dependent on technology and connectivity than in 2010, resulting in further problems collecting and recording data. Historically, many of these problems have been noted and reported to the Census Bureau, which lists pre-COVID-19 rural count strategies on their website (America Counts, 2020).

Understanding the Impact and Reality of COVID on Rural Child Care Providers

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the painful extent of inequities in rural America, which have not gone away over the last many decades for young children and the people who take care of them. When early care and education professionals in Mississippi were surveyed in the summer of 2020 by the Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning at the University of Mississippi and through a focus group of rural early childhood educators organized by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, these professionals identified their greatest needs during this time. Their needs included access to supplies, the ability to purchase essential food items, financial and policy support for existing programs, prioritizing child care needs including service to essential workers, and the creation of a grant/loan program during this time of crisis. The pain experienced by rural child care workers comes through in their survey responses, some of which are shared below. While the pandemic impacted the income of all Americans, the case can be made that families in rural areas were hit harder than others. In 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau issued a report comparing the income differences between urban and rural areas of the country. Looking at all four regions of the country, poverty rates were consistently lower for those living in rural areas than for those living in urban areas, with the largest differences in the Midwest and Northeast (Bishaw & Posey, 2016). With lower incomes due to numerous factors, including a profound difference in the minimum wage between states and an extremely low federally required minimum wage, rural families are financially compromised based on their zip code. The experiences and stories shared by these professionals describe the need, desperation, uncertainty, and fear of small program owners in small towns and rural areas. There is fear for one’s own health, the health of family members at-risk due to compromised immune systems, fear of spreading COVID among the children served and their families. There is fear of an insufficient amount of food to feed the children, fear of a lack of supplies and an inability to obtain the basics.   One professional shared: “Arkansas Department of Health suggested masks for child care workers, but we can’t find them and don’t have the extra funding for them anyway. The owner’s down to one can of disinfectant. Relatives and others are making multiple trips to stores. She’s written letters to all the local grocery stores, chamber of commerce, etc. but no help.”  Another child care provider described a different but related concern: “To be honest, I did not know what to do. Do I stay open and be a nervous wreck worried I’d disinfected enough. Worried the kids could become sick, thus making me and my husband sick. Babies don’t social distance, we are family and it’s just not possible. I prayed about what to do and after talking to my daycare families, decided it would be best to shut down.” Financial fear is a great concern. In addition to the fear of loss of income, fears of letting employees and families down and of having to close looms in many instances. One program owner said, “If our enrollment doesn’t grow after this runs out, we will have to reduce hours and/or send staff home AND put classrooms together. I have single parents and widows on staff who can’t make it work on four hours a day.”  Another shared, “Our current bank account is at $40.00. 90% of our budget is salary. As soon as our income comes in, it goes right out the door through payment to employees. We get tuition one week and spend it on payroll the next.”   Providers note that the waiting time for funds that have been allocated are unreasonable. “There are funds that have been given for supplies, for masks, and basic PPE for childcare, but we are still waiting,” one owner shared.   Many professional early childhood teachers and caregivers struggle as they work to serve others. One program owner wrote, “Since this started we have families in need, we are only charging them half tuition. All of this to say we’re basically paying to stay open. I don’t know how long we can do that, of course, it’s not sustainable. We have a business loan, payroll, utilities, of course food, as you’re well aware, etc.--seems out of place still going with no income.” Another shares similar feelings and needs, “Some financial help would have been so appreciated since I had to close. Child care is my chosen profession."  Providers described cycles of personal frustration and system failure. One child care worker shared, “After this [pandemic] happened I have applied for the Emergency Disaster Loan with no reply, nearly a month after my initial application. I applied for unemployment only to be told that money isn't available for self-employed people yet. I have applied for and been turned down for the Payroll Protection Program loan because I pay my help using a 1099, I don't meet the guidelines for assistance. As my bank account depletes, I am forced into applying for SNAP benefits which I would be very relieved if only I knew I could feed my family but that has been a dead end too. It's been nearly 2 weeks since I placed that application and I called to follow up a few days ago and I was told they haven't even received my online application yet because their system is so backed up. I have not received a stimulus check because I don't get a refund therefore mine will have to be mailed and currently, I cannot track that process either. I have zero money coming in and no sign of when help will arrive.” Survey responses made clear providers’ fear and desperation, as shown in this workers’ plea for support: “There was money to be had, then they ran out leaving my small operation to fall even deeper in the crack of despair. I need to return to work for my families and by work, I mean living. I have no job, no money and no way to live. Please, Please, Please!!! I need HELP. Thank you to whomever reads this letter.  God Bless you for anything you will be able to help.” 

Rural America Needs Our Help 

How much longer can we gamble with the lives of children and families? America can’t wait until another medical pandemic hits or the next natural disaster occurs to change its policies and address inequities for young children and their providers in rural communities. We can’t expect small towns and small programs to continue to serve the rural communities, parents, and children with limited support. “Equity” and “equality” are terms decision-makers and system implementers have confused since before Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights movement. As educators who taught in high-poverty schools in the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta in the 1970’s under “the separate but equal” administrative mindset, it is sad to see so little progress in moving the conversation from equal to equitable systems. We know how and what to do, but do we have the political will?   This chart shows the states that have the highest shares of rural populations living in hard-to-count areas  


America Counts. (2020, July). Counting People in Rural and Remote Places. United States Census Bureau. Retrieved from Bishaw, A. & Posey, K. (2016). A Comparison of Rural and Urban America: Household Income and Poverty. United States Census Bureau. Retrieved on August 2, 2020 from  Gold A. & Su, Y. (2019, October 31). Rural Communities Aren’t Immune from a Census Undercount. Here’s How They Can Prepare for 2020. Urban Institute. Retrieved on August 22, 2020 from Ratcliffe, M., Burd, C., Holder. K., & Fields, A. (2016). Defining Rural at the U.S. Census Bureau: American Community Survey and Geography Brief. United States Census Bureau. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Commerce. (2014, February). The Undercount of Young Children. United States Census Bureau. Retrieved on August 21, 2020 from          

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Post Image Reimagining the “New Normal”:  Equity, Policy, COVID, and Rural Public Schools

Arnold Fege, President of the Public Advocacy for Kids nonprofit, reflects on what it takes to create equity and reimagine schooling in rural communities after COVID-19. His article centers around five questions: unpacking the United States’ political will to resolve internet inequality; examining organizational changes needed to wholly care for students; identifying effective strategies to retain educators; looking to the relationship between federal funding and success in rural education; and predicting the role of state education agencies in providing school resources. Back to Count Us In: Advancing Equity in Rural Schools and Communities  

Reimagining the “New Normal”:  Equity, Policy, COVID, and Rural Public Schools

September 2020: Exploring Equity Issues, Rural Edition Arnold F. Fege President, Public Advocacy for Kids We can all agree that before COVID-19, not all school districts and not all communities had the same educational opportunities and resources. And we can all agree COVID-19 has exposed in a dramatic fashion the inequities and gaps that were often ignored and neglected for many years, for many children and for many school districts. Students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, English Learners, students with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups such as students experiencing homelessness and students in foster care, were less likely to have rigorous, engaging, and positive educational experiences before the pandemic. Now there is a real risk that school closures, distance learning, hybrid models, and schools opening and closing will fall heavily on these populations and on another: those in rural school districts (Economic Research Service, 2020). Much has been written about the challenges of larger, urban school districts. Indeed, in the past, my own organization has concentrated our policy and legislative focus on mostly urban and large county school systems. Rob Mahaffy, my colleague and the executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust, and longtime friends at Organizations Concerned About Rural Education (OCRE), were instrumental in assuring that rural, tribal, Alaskan Natives, and territories voices and needs be a seamless part of our organization’s agenda as well. The goal is the same: to assure that all children have access to and receive a high-quality public education no matter where they reside. And at the core of that mission is equity.  So here we are in the midst of a global pandemic. All school districts should be planning now for how to make up this lost learning time, which particularly affects our most vulnerable students (King & Weingarten, 2020). Ideas include implementing summer programs, and extending or restructuring school days for the 2020-21 school year, summer of 2021, and school year 2022. During this period, federal, state, and local policymakers will be making difficult decisions, and deciding how to make those choices fair and equitable. Rural school districts have often been on the short end of these tradeoffs. Many of the challenges that rural districts face are similar to mid-size and urban school districts. But there are also dynamics that work differently: size, scope, resources, community, political environment, staffing, geography, distance, isolation, workforce development, economics, and constrained tax base, to name a few. The point is not to undervalue the seriousness of the problems that urban education leaders face, but to recognize that rural districts face distinctive problems that have not received enough attention in terms of research, safety, resources, teacher and educator preparation, and certainly equitable policies and adequacy of funding.   Rural looks different across the country, from remote Native American lands in the West, to small towns in the Great Plains and Midwest, to the Mississippi Delta and Southern “Black Belt,” to Appalachia and New England. Rural looks different even within each state: it might be a town of a few thousand people, or tiny communities several hours or even days from the nearest city, as in parts of Alaska. These differences require policies that recognize that one size does not fit all. In far too many cases, rural districts still do not have the resources and opportunities they deserve compared to urban school districts, although there remain differences within rural areas and they are also hard to define as a unified idea. In total, 46 million Americans live in rural areas. About 53% of our nation’s school districts and one-third of U.S. schools are in rural areas. Nearly 7.5 million public school students were enrolled in rural school districts during the 2016-17 school year—that’s nearly one of every seven students across the country. The number is even larger when counting students who attend rural schools within districts classified as “non-rural.” By this measure, more than 9.3 million students attend a rural school (Ratcliffe et. al, 2016). This means that more students in the U.S. attend rural schools than in the nation’s 85 largest school districts combined. Nearly one in six of rural students lives below the poverty line, one in seven qualifies for special education, and one in nine has changed residence in the previous 12 months (Showalter et. al, 2019).  To be clear, rural America offers assets often not available in urban settings. Rural residents feel that their community has a sense of shared values that are different from people in big cities: three quarters (74%) say other people in rural communities have similar values to their own, while two-thirds (65%) say people who live in big cities hold different values (Palosky & Singh, 2017). They also believe that their communities look out for one another and are good places to raise their children, and 76% of rural participants reported that their children’s schools are high-quality. America’s rural communities and educators are a treasure and add to the rich diversity of this country.  For people living in rural America, schools are more than places of academic instruction. They provide food and health care for students, foster the sense of real community education, provide much-needed support for families, and act as central players in community life, with schools sometimes providing the only place for community gatherings. However, even though many rural superintendents have found success in working collaboratively and with cooperatives, they face many obstacles, such as internet connectivity, post-secondary outcomes, and transportation funding. They struggle to recruit and retain teachers with specialized skills such as special education and TESOL. They need funding for support services such as child care, nurses, counselors, librarians and mental health workers. And finally, they need to figure out how to pay for rebuilding and renovating schools (Nicola et. al, 2020). And to make matters worse, the National Council of State Legislators predicts that because of COVID-19, states may face greater revenue shortfalls than during the Great Recession (National Conference of State Legislators, 2020). As rural districts spend time and resources on costly short-term strategies, either in person or virtually, they also worry about sustainability; as they fight for greater equity, the resources may not be there to support them in the future. Such lack of resources means rural students are more likely to have lower educational attainment, restricted student opportunity, and fewer support services (National Conference of State Legislators, 2020). On the other hand, this is a moment in time—a short moment of time before the comforting chorus of “getting back to the old normal” gets too loud and powerful. If we can set clear expectations for our students, we can do the same for policy makers and our politicians at the state and federal levels. They need to spend time in rural school districts to better understand the issues before they make policies or pass laws. The current state and federal policies, laws, funding formulas and regulations that created the baked-in inequities need to be rooted out and replaced with policies that maintain the fundamental rights to a public education guaranteed to all children. It is possible to do this work while recognizing the distinct differences and characteristics between and among rural school districts.  The pandemic not only presents additional challenges for our rural schools, but also opportunities, very few of which are new, but most have historically resisted implementation. One thing is for certain: the world as we have known it will be vastly different by the end of this pandemic. As we endure the uncertainty of quarantine, we must ask ourselves what kind of world we want to return to for ourselves and our students.  For those aware of the inequities and unfairness that characterized schools in America prior to the crisis, this is also a time to ask: Could the pandemic be an opportunity through which we can bring about educational justice? While rural schools are highly local, they are also a matter of national interest and leadership—as much as highways and interstate commerce—and rural schools are graduating students whose lives will be connected to the rest of the world just as much as those in the big cities.   In that vein, there are lingering equity and policy challenges that will face all of us during and at the end of the pandemic, but especially rural schools and communities, including these: 

1. Does the country have the political will to resolve internet inequality?

Nationwide, across all racial and ethnic groups, 16.9 million children remain logged out from instruction because their families lack the home internet access necessary to support online learning (Future Ready Schools et. al, 2020). Those households with children under the age of 18 years lack two essential elements for online learning: high-speed home internet service and a computer. One in three Black, Latinx, and American Indian/Alaska Native households are not connected. Rural Americans are also less likely to have a tablet, laptop, or desktop than urban and suburban residents (Khazan, 2020). They trail urban residents by 12 points and suburban residents by 16 points. In Mississippi, which serves 235,000 rural students, the Census Bureau reports that one-fifth of Mississippi households do not have a computer and nearly one-third lack high-speed Internet access (United States Census Bureau). According to the FCC, half of the residents of the Mississippi Delta have no access to the Internet. In addition, nearly all teachers nationally (96%) pay for their home-based high-speed internet themselves (Will, 2020b). And 10% of teachers, mostly in rural areas, don’t have high-speed, wireless internet at home (Will, 2020a). They make do during the current school shutdowns with mobile hotspots or even working in parking lots or empty school buildings. Currently, there is a bill in Congress to increase the E-Rate by $4 billion, which would go a long way in providing homes with broadband and connectivity (Will, 2020b).

2. What organizational changes are necessary to move from factory model school to a whole child school, and what capacity is necessary to serve both as an educational institution as well as the safety net?

The path to educational success is different for each student, and availability to support services also varies. Data tell us that the road to success is tougher for young people who are engaged with the foster care system, who are hungry, who are parents, who face school suspensions, who lack secure housing and internet access, who have special education needs and language barriers, who may be from low-income households or have family members who are victims of the opioid epidemic. These young people need expanded supports to succeed, supports that are often not thought of when planning college access and success programs. If they are not addressed, we allow students to fall through the education, social, and emotional cracks. But the current model and school architecture is not designed to tackle many issues outside of their control. In South Dakota, which is one of the most rural of states, “rural educators often tout the generally lower student-teacher ratio and scores on standardized tests show that students in some rural South Dakota districts match or occasionally out perform their urban peers” (Pfankuch, 2019). Clearly, the school plays the role of community anchor, but a 19th century model is crashing into 21st century needs, the system is overwhelmed, and by its nature produces inequitable results. This is a time to plan with the community the systemic changes required to respond to the demographic changes hitting urban and rural public schools (Rodriguez, 2020). To integrate via technology, face to face and through community organizations, a true community education model where the school responds to the needs of the “whole child” (Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child).

3. What are effective strategies and means to address teacher and principal shortages, retention, competition with other school districts,  compensation, and professional development?

No small district has the capacity or the market to solve workforce issues on its own. This question requires a state and federally coordinated response, along with input from higher education leaders (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017). Solutions for urban settings generally do not successfully transfer to rural settings. In addition to dealing with the pandemic, distance learning issues, social-emotional learning, and accountability pressures that all districts face, rural districts also face challenges such as lower salaries, fears of isolation in an unfamiliar area, limited housing and recreational options, lack of human capital and resources, and little opportunity for professional development and professional growth (Schwartz, 2020). These same issues make it harder to recruit school administrators, which further compounds the teacher recruitment problem since teachers want to be supported by a strong administrative staff. As a result, many districts have had to hire teachers and principals without the proper licensure, especially in specialized areas such as working with students with special education needs and English Learners. It also challenges administrators to recruit a diverse teaching force that possesses the cultural competencies needed to work with an increasingly diverse student body and parents.

4. Can rural districts continue to maintain a presence and strong voice at the federal level that sustains and increases funding? 

Let’s say it up front. Just like healthcare, public education has been underfunded and underinvested, especially in rural communities. Rural education requires a continued strong federal funding presence. As problematic and bureaucratic as federal funding might be for rural districts—and many do not have the capacity to compete for grants or provide matches—most rural districts and communities rely on federal resources to supplement state and local tax bases. To support schools to meet ESSA requirements, REAP authorizes two rural programs: The Small Rural School Achievement Program (SRSA) and The Rural and Low-Income Schools Program (RLIS), which increase the focus on rural schools. Other programs that have rural priorities include the Full Service Community Schools, 21st Century Community Schools, Impact Aid, IDEA, Head Start and Early Head Start, in addition to other social and health services such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), housing assistance, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), CHIP, Summer Feeding, Migrant Education, the Child Care Development Block Grant, and Women with Infants and Children (WIC). The big takeaway is that federal spending on all children’s programs dropped from 7.98% in FY 2015 to 7.21% in 2019—confirming a downward trend in federal spending for children (First Focus on Children, 2019).

5. And lastly, of course, will states and local communities provide the adequate resources needed to achieve equity and opportunity for rural children and families?

Rural school finance is extremely complex, but at the heart of both state and local finance structure lies issues of economies of scale, local tax assessments, levy rates, local control, and local willingness to support increases in school revenues. Challenges include deferred maintenance to buildings and infrastructure, struggles to provide the same access to high-level courses for rural students, difficulty in retaining teachers, and to add a final nail in the proverbial coffin, the cost of opening school buildings safely during the pandemic, all of which add to the pressures rural schools face.  To date, state school funding systems have been challenged in 45 states, from New York to, most recently, Kansas. Yet because rural schools are not on a level playing field with urban and suburban schools, lack of adequate resources threatens their very existence. Rural school districts thus continue to lag behind urban areas with respect to federal funds. When access to federal programs depends on the absolute number of disadvantaged students rather than proportions, small rural schools typically lose out to affluent metropolitan ones. Federal policies are often based on preparing students for an urban life rather than answering the needs of a rural setting. Rural communities are in great need of institutions that will strengthen rural life, serve all members of all ages in the community, and link education to other social services and economic enterprises within the area. Education must be linked with other rural development activities, and rural development itself should be based on comprehensive rural studies rather than on applications of urban models as determinants of rural life (Parks & Hoke, 1979).


Creating equity and reimagining schooling after the pandemic requires listening to everyone within the community -- and building on the assets that rural schools offer. Reimagining requires engaging parents, teachers, principals, support services, health care, business, the Farm Bureau, social services, juvenile justice, and students. While they may not be an economy of scale, rural schools’ smaller class sizes support individualized instruction and more teacher attention, conditions that also provide an opportunity to assure that our marginalized communities are part of the conversation.  Not only have tens of millions of families across the country had to play an active role in the “schooling” of their children during the pandemic, but the void left by schools is being felt across multiple dimensions of social, economic, political and community life. Schools are not just places where young people learn; they are also places of community and connection, physical and emotional safety, shelter and food, democracy and deliberation. In addition, the economy cannot function without schools, unless we devise another way to ensure that children are supervised while their parents are at work.   Building on rural assets, beginning to plan, holding our state and federal policymakers accountable--this is what our rural schools and communities are good at. Let’s make the mantra “we are all in this together” work for equitable educational opportunities and upward mobility for all of our children. We can do this.


Carver-Thomas, D. & Darling-Hammond, L. (2017, August). Teacher Turnover: Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It. Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from Economic Research Service. (2020, May 28). Rural Education. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from First Focus on Children. (2019, September). Children’s Budget 2019. Retrieved from Future Ready Schools, National Urban League, UnidosUS, & National Indian Education Association. (2020, August). The Alliance for Excellent Education. Retrieved from Khazan, O. (2020, August 17). America’s Terrible Internet is Making Quarantine Worse. The Atlantic. Retrieved from King, J. & Weingarten, R. (2020, April 24). What comes next for public schooling. The Hill. Retrieved from National Conference of State Legislatures. (2020, January 21). Challenges Facing Rural Communities. Retrieved from Nicola, T., Gable, A., & Ash, J. (2020, July). The Response of Rural Districts to the COVID-19 Pandemic. National Center for Rural Education Research Networks. Retrieved from Organizations Concerned about Rural Education. Retrieved from Palosky, C. & Singh, R. (2017, June 19). Kaiser Family Foundation/Washington Post Partnership Survey Probes Experiences and Views of Rural Americans. KFF. Retrieved from Parks, G.A. & Hoke, G. (1979, May). Federal Education Programs and Rural Development Needs: An Unrealized Potential. ERIC Clearinghouse. Retrieved from Pfankuch, B. (2019, November 15). Rural Schools in S.D. Face Unique Challenges that Can Affect Learning. Argus Leader. Retrieved from Ratcliffe, M., Burd, C., Holder, K., & Fields, A. (2016). Defining Rural at the Census Bureau: American Community Survey and Geography Brief. United States Census Bureau.Retrieved from Rodriguez, M.C. (2020, June 7). If There Was Ever a Time to Transform Schools, This Is It. Center for the Transformation of Schools. Retrieved from Schwartz, S. (2020, March 4). Access to Quality PD Is an Equity Issue, Teachers Say. Education Week. Retrieved from Showalter, D., Hartman, S.L., Johnson, J., & Klein, B. (2019, November). Why Rural Matters: The Time is Now, 2018-2019. The Rural School and Community Trust. Retrieved from The Rural School and Community Trust. (2016). About Us. Retrieved from United States Census Bureau. QuickFacts: Mississippi. Retrieved from Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child. Association for Supervision and Curriculum. Retrieved from Will, M. (2020b, May 4). Should Schools Pay for Teachers’ Internet Access? Education Week. Retrieved from Will, M. (2020a, April 29). Teachers Without Internet Work in Parking Lots, Empty School Buildings During COVID-19. Education Week. Retrieved from  

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