Additional Learning Opportunities in Rural Areas
Rural, low-income students are more at risk of becoming high school dropouts than their city and suburban peers. This fact alone should be a sufficient reason to address the challenges facing rural schools that serve low-income areas, but the negative findings do not stop with that one statistic. Students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches do not score as well on assessments as other students, and students attending rural schools do not perform as well as students who attend suburban schools. Rural schools, especially those serving low-income areas, need the nation's attention, but currently they are not receiving the attention they deserve.
If educational achievement gaps are to be closed in this country it is just as important to address challenges in rural areas as urban and some suburban areas. One promising strategy that should be considered by policymakers at every level as they respond to these challenges is the expansion of learning time for all students attending schools with large concentrations of low-income students. A comprehensive approach to school reform that adds time to school days, weeks, and/or years for all students can result in significant learning gains. These so called "expanded learning time," or ELT programs, when appropriately implemented, have obvious demonstrable advantages over otherprograms that provide additional learning time services. The problem is, ELT programs have proven difficult to put into place in rural areas.
Rural schools in low-income areas are usually resource-poor-because of weak tax bases and in some states because of state education funding formulas that treat rural areas inequitably. Even the federal Title I educational program funding formula disadvantages many rural states, particularly in the South, Southwest, and West. This translates into serious funding challenges.
Rural schools also face additional challenges related to the availability of high quality instructional staff, access to professional development opportunities, expertise in fund development, and parental engagement. The upshot: Increasing the number of hours in the school day and/or the number of weeks in the school year is not currently feasible in rural areas without significant new investments by state and/or federal governments, no matter how desirable.
Fortunately, there are programs that are successfully providing additional learning services for rural students with the greatest challenges in a limited number of rural, low-income areas. Afterschool, beforeschool, intersession, weekend, holiday, and summer learning programs are being successfully operated in rural areas. Referred to throughout this paper in a variety of ways, these "extra" or "additional" learning opportunities or programs are academically focused and proving to be effective in serving the needs of students who require more than what is available through the regular school day.
Still, it must be acknowledged that these kinds of additional schooling options for low-income parents in rural areas are much rarer for them than their non-rural peers. There are exceptions (see box, page 2), but in most rural areas expanded learning time programs that lengthen the school day, week or year for all students in the school are virtually non-existent. Similarly, charter schools are scarce, the number of service providers for federally funded tutoring programs for low-income schools is limited, and the promise of virtual courses has not yet been realized in most rural places. What extra learning opportunities there are usually exist in afterschool programs serving relatively small proportions of students.
Although limited in rural areas, these voluntary programs can have a positive impact. The keys to success are similar to those of best practices in non-rural areas. They include:
- Strong, committed leadership and quality instructional staff
- Adult-to-student ratios at levels that are low enough to make realistic the development of supportive staff/student relationships
- Emphasis on making learning engaging and exciting by providing academic- based enrichment activities while assisting students in meeting achievement standards.
These learning opportunities provide a means of reaching students that regular during-school-time programs are not effectively serving and could be the basis for programs that lengthen the school day, week, or year for all students.
These additional learning opportunities in low-income, rural areas help many students and families. In the following pages, this paper will examine the essential characteristics of successful additional learning programs and then detail where the author saw those characteristics in action in select programs in school districts in the Carolinas and Iowa. The paper will then explore the possible federal, state, and private sources of funding to replicate these kinds of programs across rural America.
Before any discussion of the successes and challenges associated with such opportunities can begin, however, we must first start with an understanding of what is meant by rural. Rural is not an easy concept.