Gifted programming is often intended to expand students’ thinking and give them access to new experiences. In rural areas, though, that can lead to pushing talented young people to choose between their roots and their future.
Now, though, educators and researchers are working to use place-based education models to deepen rural students’ learning while also broadening their thinking about their communities.
The 3,400-student Page County school system is one of 13 high-poverty Virginia districts that are part of a five-year, $2 million project with researchers at Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education to create an advanced-course curricula for gifted rural students.
The project’s goal is to help districts identify students who might be otherwise overlooked for gifted programs and to buffer academically promising rural students from problems caused by biases against them. While most people associate so-called “stereotype threat” with diminished performance when reminded of negative stereotypes about their gender or race, similar problems can occur for rural students confronted with stereotypes around “small-minded hillbillies” or “dumb rednecks.”
"[Students] say, ‘I can’t experience success here, there’s nothing for me here.’ We hear that, not only from the students but from their parents and teachers,” said Kristen K. Seward, a clinical assistant professor and the director of the Gifted Education Resource Institute at Purdue University in Indiana. “There are many talented young people in rural areas and there are many things that influence whether they go on to higher education and then, after that, that influences whether they go back to their community.”
Unmet Promises is an occasional series examining the challenges facing disadvantaged students who show academic potential.
The project, called Promoting PLACE—for Place, Literacy, Achievement, Community, Engagement—starts with a common gifted-education framework developed by the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.
Nationwide, a higher percentage of rural students scored at the “advanced” level in reading and math in 4th and 8th grades than their peers in towns and cities did, according to a recent federal analysis of data from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress.
But studies repeatedly find that academically promising rural students—particularly those from low-income and minority backgrounds—are underrepresented in gifted education. A 2009 Ohio University study also found changing rural demographics, such as declining and aging populations and rising poverty and minority rates, are especially likely to affect the demographic composition of gifted programs in those areas. In part, that’s because rural schools have limited capacity to adjust to fluctuations in funding or enrollment while also keeping resources for separate acceleration programs and for training teachers to identify gifted youngsters.
It can be trickier to identify signs of traditional “giftedness” in some rural students, said Amy Price Azano, an assistant professor of education at Virginia Tech and a co-principal investigator of the Virginia project. “It’s the student who comes in to talk about how he went fishing that weekend, and where a lot of students might go fishing, he has really made a science of it—what time to go, what kind of bait to use, where to go in the river.”
Rural students and teachers alike can buy into stereotypes that outdoor and other common interests in rural areas show a lack of engagement in schooling, Azano said, rather than seeing the student’s approach as something to encourage.
“Stereotype threat is perhaps an issue for [rural] teachers as much as their students,” Azano said. “We want to help challenge the notion of what giftedness might look like in a rural community.”
Carolyn Callahan, an education professor at the University of Virginia, and Azano surveyed educators in the districts about local folklore, history, and landmarks, as well as the businesses and resources available and how connected the community was to other areas. The results were used to tweak existing curriculum plans for local contexts.
“We’re hoping to give these students the message that your place is one of value and worthy of learning about,” Azano said, “so students don’t get those implicit messages that if you want to make something of yourself, you have to leave.”
In Page County, one lesson last week on folktales meant talking about Cinderella going to a football game.
‘Chomping at the Bit’
Elementary gifted specialist Erin Knoll talked to her 3rd grade reading class about versions of the classic fairy tale around the world, the common elements of the poor and abused girl attending a social event with the help of magical friends, and the cultural differences, such as the heroine attending a ball in the Grimm Brothers version but a church service in the German version.
“Then we talked about how we would write our own variant of Cinderella for Page County. So instead of going to the ball, they said she might go to a football game or a county fair or Luray Caverns,” Knoll said, referring to a local attraction that helps drive the area’s tourist industry. “They loved it. I had kids who wrote over two pages in 20 minutes. They were chomping at the bit.”
It’s also important for rural educators to help their students understand how technology can allow them to pursue a broader range of careers from within their home community, said Purdue’s Seward, who discussed place-based gifted education this month at the National Rural Education Association’s annual research symposium in Columbus, Ohio. “The reach of rural can extend well beyond the boundaries of any community,” Seward said. “What we’d like to see is enrichment that is far-reaching but with a local connection,” she said. For example, she suggested having students contact NASA scientists on the space station after viewing “October Sky,” a 1999 movie about Homer H. Hickam Jr., a model-rocket enthusiast in a rural coal-mining town who grew up to work for the space agency.
The PLACE lessons also help students understand more about the opportunities in their mostly agricultural community, said Eric Benson, the director of instruction for Page County. “We’ve lost major industry in the past 10, 15 years. It’s a changing mindset for our families and our students that those businesses are not coming back, but there are other ways to make a living in Page County,” he said.
Rather than focusing on screening for math and reading achievement alone, Seward is studying how local schools and groups can provide broader enrichment and mentoring opportunities in skills that are needed in the community. For example, a gifted program might highlight “entrepreneurial thinking” and provide college advising in specialized career fields like biochemical engineering for agriculture.
“How we define success is important,” she said. “If a high-ability student wants to return to their rural area to be near their family and raise their own children, … they can find ways to do that, to shape their rural context.”
Coverage of the experiences of low-income, high-achieving students is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2016 edition of Education Week as Educators Tap Into a Sense of Place to Reach Bright Students in Rural Areas