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Rural Educators Find Common Issues With Others From Around the Globe

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Rural education scholars and activists from all corners of the globe converged June 19-23 on this historic foothills town near the Virginia-Tennessee border to share information about the struggles of rural schools and people worldwide.

Researchers presented academic papers on important education topics at the fourth International Rural Network Conference, a gathering held every two years. Speakers also addressed other pressing rural issues beyond education, such as community development, culture, tourism, and health and hygiene.

Participants heard about “place-based learning” in Alabama and Alaska, a concept that emphasizes the use of local resources to teach children. And they heard about small-school survival in Norway and Sweden; the influence of rural parents in Australia; and the plight of students in South Africa who live on commercial farms.

Jack Shelton, a retired University of Alabama professor who for many years led a small-schools institute known as PACERS, talked about how educators can use rural communities as platforms for teaching. Building on the concept of “place-based learning,” he said “consequential learning”—which ties learning to community needs—helps students see that their own schoolwork can contribute to the economic and educational development of rural communities.

“Schools have become franchises, like McDonalds,” Mr. Shelton said, criticizing federal and state education laws that require similar academic standards and streamlined tests in many grades and subjects.

Promoting his new book, Consequential Learning: A Public Approach to Better Schools, Mr. Shelton told conference participants how the community of Florala, Ala., has built a first-rate fish hatchery that helps students learn about science. Students sell fish from the hatchery, which draws hundreds of visitors a year and provides revenue to the school district, he said.

Wenche Roenning, a researcher for the Nordland Research Institute in Norway, showed in her presentation of fellow institute researcher Karl Jan Solstad’s work how rural schools in Sweden and Norway are struggling in the same ways as rural schools in the United States. The research outlines how rural students in those countries experience extremely long bus rides and do not learn academic content focused on rural life or communities. Many remote towns have shut down their schools because of a lack of money, she said, and privately run schools are replacing the former municipal schools in some places.

South African scholar Rajendra Chetty presented his research on the low quality of schooling provided to South African families who live on commercial farms. Farm schools often are located in dilapidated buildings, Mr. Chetty said. Students struggle to learn from overwhelmed teachers who are not well prepared for working in harsh environments. Learning materials are old and in short supply, and students must walk up to eight kilometers to attend school, said Mr. Chetty, a professor and the head of education research at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town.

Megan McNicholl, the immediate past president of the Rural Education Forum Australia, spoke about the influence that rural parents have developed on federal education policy in Australia. The network includes organizations focused on topics such as education and health. It grew out of the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association of Australia, which has local and state-level chapters in most parts of the nation. “We’re not powerful, we’re influential,” Ms. McNicholl said in an interview. “We’re [all] volunteers.”

The conference was sponsored by several organizations, including the Rural Policy Research Institute, which provides research and advocacy on a variety of rural policy topics from its home base in Columbia, Mo. The Appalachian Regional Commission, a compact of 13 states that provides policy guidance and services for communities in the Appalachian region, was another key sponsor. The International Rural Network itself links academics, activists, and policymakers from around the world with the goal of improving rural life.

This year’s conference, at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center, was the first to be held in the United States. Previous meetings were held in Scotland, Canada, and Australia.

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