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Are rural students and schools invisible? A wake up call for rural education in North Carolina

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North Carolina is the 10th highest priority state when it comes to rural education, according to a new report from the National Rural Education Association.

In North Carolina, 481,044 of our students attend rural school districts — second only to Texas, says the 148-page report: “Why Rural Matters 2023: Centering Equity and Opportunity.”

Compared to their rural peers in other states, North Carolina’s students are much more likely to live in a household with an income below the poverty line, attend a racially diverse school located in a community where many families live below the federal poverty line, and have moved residences within the last 12 months.

Schools and districts are large, instructional spending on students is low, and the state is one of the few places where rural students graduate high school at a lower rate than their non-rural peers.

Access to student supports is on par with peers in other states, except for low enrollment in public preschool access and inadequate internet connectivity.

Why Rural Matters 2023

“The invisibility of rural education persists in many states where education policy is dominated by highly visible urban problems,” says the report.

It should be more visible here since North Carolina is one of just two states — Georgia is the other — with large proportional and absolute rural student enrollments.

Why don’t rural policy concerns influence state legislation more often?

The report says, “Rural schools and students often seem invisible because many policymakers lack personal experience in rural communities,” and it concludes it’s time for “educators, policymakers, caregivers, students, citizens, and employers to deepen our understanding of rural education issues and to move beyond simplistic and often harmful notions about rural schools and their communities.”

How important is it to the overall public education system of North Carolina to address the particular needs of schools serving rural communities? Crucial, the report finds.

How important is it to the overall public education system of North Carolina to address the needs of diverse populations in schools serving rural communities? Urgent, the report finds.

‘Why Rural Matters’

“For more than 20 years, the Why Rural Matters series of reports has been the go-to resource for policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and others who want to understand the contexts and conditions of rural education in the 50 states,” said Dr. Jerry Johnson, a researcher and co-author of the report.

Johnson is the Phoebe Moore Dail Distinguished Professor in Rural Education at East Carolina University.

According to a press release, the report uses five gauges to describe the condition of rural education in each state:

  1. The importance of rural education.
  2. The diversity of rural students and their families.
  3. The educational policy context impacting rural schools and facing rural communities across the United States.
  4. The educational outcomes of rural students.
  5. The access to supports for learning and development of students in rural schools in each state.

“Many rural communities — especially certain pockets — are currently facing multiple crises in terms of educational loss, economic outcomes, unemployment, and mental health,” cautions the report.

The research makes the case for “rural educational research about practices that increase access to rural educational opportunities and the need to bring rural strengths and successes into focus across the United States.”

Courtesy of NREA

NREA’s research agenda includes policy and funding; health and wellness; partnership and community relationships; teacher and leader preparation, recruitment, and retention; college and career trajectory, as well as spatial and educational equity. Spatial equity is defined as how equity challenges are related to place, and education equity is defined as how equity, or rather inequity, relates to diverse identities and social circumstances present within the rural school and community, according to the agenda.

The report offers these nationwide findings:

  • More access to psychologists and school counselors is needed.
  • Most rural gifted and talented programs demonstrate gender equity.
  • More gifted and talented program access is needed for Black and Hispanic students in rural districts.
  • Rural areas appear to offset some of the impact of poverty on educational outcomes;
  • Many rural areas continue to lack basic internet access.
  • Students in rural school districts are more likely to graduate high school than their non-rural counterparts (North Carolina is an exception).

A closer look at North Carolina

Note when the report uses the word “leading,” it means leading in concern.

The report finds, “rural school districts in Delaware, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Nevada are the four most racially diverse in the United States, as per our Rural Diversity Index.”

Here is access to the full report.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.