Rural students face a host of unique challenges compared to their suburban and urban peers. They, for example, are less likely to attend private, selective, or four-year colleges, are more likely to rely on government food assistance, and are more likely to deal with health issues like obesity. Rural schools across the country are constantly dealing with shrinking enrollments and budgets and chronic teacher shortages, which often force schools to share teachers, offer online courses rather than in-person sessions, and cut elective courses and extra staff members.
Despite these many challenges, rural schools and students often fail to receive the assistance and respect they deserve, according to Laurie Baker, the senior director of the Rural Innovative Schools initiative under the nonprofit North Carolina New Schools/Breakthrough Learning. Baker grew up in rural Virginia and has worked as a teacher and principal in rural southern school districts. She now works to expand access to early-college opportunities in rural South Carolina, Indiana, Illinois, Mississippi, and North Carolina by helping states plan or scale up efforts that will allow students can earn college credit while still in high school. (Some states, like North Carolina, have found that graduation rates and associate’s degree attainment rates have increased in rural areas where students have access to early college high schools.)
Baker says that the rural student population is a special population that has been ignored, and in many cases, stereotyped in harmful ways, for too long. I spoke to Baker to learn more about her work and her theory on how stereotypes hurt rural schools.
You grew up in rural Virginia. What messages did you hear as a rural student?
I think that while I was immersed in that culture, it was all that I knew. [There’s] this conflict between feeling hometown proud and having such pride in your small rural community but at the same time having this sense of needing to encourage students who are the best and the brightest to leave. You look around and see there are limited resources,
In my work now, and also as a parent, I’ve become much more reflective about the hypocrisy of that. On one hand we believe so strongly and we’re so proud of the unique that’s inherent in rural communities. At the same time as a parent, what jobs will my daughter be able to access in this rural community? Do I also need to encourage her to leave? That conflict is very real for many people who live and work and care so deeply for the community.
What about messages from outside rural communities?
Until someone points it out to you, you don’t necessarily notice the degree to which rural people are stereotyped and marginalized. In the media and in entertainment, there’s been this cannon of material out there that portrays rural people as backwards or ignorant. If you try to archive in your mind how rural people are portrayed versus urban, the negative list is much, much longer on the rural side.
How do these messages impact rural students?
We know rural schools make up more than half of the nation’s rural operating school districts. But rural is just not something we talk about much. Over the course of the accountability movement, we’re making sure we reach all students and specific populations that we know have been marginalized. When those populations come to mind, nobody thinks about rural. More rural children in the country live in poverty than their urban peers. More rural children have fewer opportunities to access education than their urban peers. There are so many indicators that rural populations are a special population.
What needs to happen for this messaging to change?
One way is pointing out the way that people portray rural. It’s accepted that it’s ok to marginalize that entire population with redneck jokes or whatever. The other thing is to try to reframe the conversation in rural areas so we’re not speaking ill of the opportunities that our children have the potential have to achieve locally.
Rural superintendents and principals often think about the supply side of the equation, and the kinds of students they are charged with serving. The demand side of the work is to make sure that all students graduate prepared to achieve. If we can help school leaders position themselves as the agents of change, not just for education outcomes, but also for developing new economic drivers for the community, that’s when we’ll see long- term momentum.
You work to expand early-college high schools in rural areas. What outcomes have you seen or do you hope to see?
Just last year, students in our network earned 145,000 college credit hours. So what we hope to do is scale that level of access while they’re in their own communities and high schools in new places, where they may not have considered [that we can] create these kinds of opportunities for kids. The results ideally would be that the community becomes its own hub of innovation. We then get the self-fulfilling prophecy of students who may attain an associate’s degree in high school, go to a four-year school, get a graduate degree, but then come back and contribute to their community.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.