Don’t Forget Rural Schools

Look outside cities for today's neediest classrooms

America’s Good Samaritans have often focused their energies on its big cities. This is especially true when it comes to donors committed to improving education. Inner cities have long experienced disproportionate levels of poor schooling, poverty, joblessness, and crime, making life for children difficult. Philanthropic investments in these areas are squarely on the side of the angels.

But for too long, we’ve neglected the schools serving boys and girls in rural America. There are deep needs there as well—in fact, as a recent Wall Street Journal analysis showed, rural counties are now worse off than inner cities in poverty, educational opportunity, male employment, and a host of other measures. Yet few extra resources are directed toward rural schools. That’s a problem philanthropists can remedy.

Real problems; real opportunities

The problem is serious and undeniable. About one out of four U.S. students are educated today in schools defined as rural—more than 10 million youngsters. And it’s very little understood that rural kids are actually more likely than urban students to live in deep poverty.

Rural poverty can be particularly crippling. Even poor kids in cities have access to great libraries, beautiful parks, lots of nearby examples of success. Rural poverty can be much more isolating. A child born into deep poverty in the rural South has just a 5 percent chance of reaching the top quintile of income as an adult. More than four out of five of the U.S. counties designated as “persistently poor” today are rural.

These factors can cause rural kids to internalize a sense of limited expectations, if not hopelessness. Rural kids are more likely to abuse alcohol and meth, and they have a higher teen-birth rate than their urban peers. All of this has a profound influence on schools. According to national tests, rural kids significantly underperform their suburban peers, and a lower percentage of rural high-school graduates go on to college than the national average. One important implication: rural adults are about half as likely as urban adults to earn a four-year college degree.

For the last several years, I’ve worked with a number of colleagues on these issues thanks to support from the J. A. and Katherine Albertson Foundation. Our team aimed to better understand rural schooling and the factors influencing it, increase the number of people and organizations working to improve this corner of K-12 education, and trumpet promising efforts already underway while also developing fresh ideas for future approaches.

We found many reasons to be encouraged. But we’re also much more aware of the range of challenges facing rural schools, and of the reasons why change can be so difficult. Philanthropy has already played an essential role in some of today’s most fruitful initiatives in rural educational improvement—but there’s no doubt that interested donors could do much more.

Mythbusting and migration

One of the clearest lessons we learned is that there are chasms separating rural schools and children from much of the education establishment, from the education-reform community, and from philanthropists. In many ways, rural schools are fundamentally a mystery to a large segment of K-12 experts. With their jobs downtown and their homes in the city or its suburbs, much of our managerial class has little interaction with rural America. Rural communities are, by definition, at a distance from metro politan centers. They have far fewer nonprofits in operation and ready to receive additional investments. And in many cases, the reforms that have succeeded in big cities, like charter-school chains, or portable school vouchers, don’t easily translate to rural areas.

For instance, our research found a yawning gap between what rural superintendents cite as their most pressing issues and what national experts think rural superintendents need. The “experts” believed rural schools struggled most with recruiting and retaining teachers and acquiring technology. But the practitioners identified too little funding for special-education mandates, too much compliance-related paperwork, and too many strings attached to school dollars. And so much for the idea that teachers are unattainable: rural teachers express higher rates of job satisfaction than teachers in other areas.

There’s also a common assumption among national leaders that smaller enrollments at most rural schools lead not only to limited offerings but to few economies of scale and high inefficiency. But our research found that remote rural schools are actually more likely than those of any other type to be “productivity superstars”—generating outsized results for the dollars invested.

But there are also important obstacles to improving rural schools. For example, most educators end up teaching in schools close to where they grew up. Because rural America is lightly populated, with fewer of its young people earning college degrees, and many of them migrating away for job opportunities, rural schools have a considerably smaller pool of teachers from which to choose. As a result, rural schools can struggle to find math and science teachers, those able to teach English as a second language, and those with special-education certification.

There are also knotty economic- development issues at play. The dominant industries in rural areas often offer low-skill, low-wage jobs. So school systems can be faced with a dispiriting choice: produce students with minimal skills to fill the local jobs available, or produce more highly skilled students who will be forced to leave their communities for good in order to find suitable careers. This is more than a theoretical concern. We found, for example, that while rural students have higher high-school graduation rates, their high-school coursework can be measurably less rigorous, inadequately preparing them for further education. In other words, it appears that a combination of factors makes it reasonable for some communities to treat high school as the end of the educational road.

College prep and charters

Despite the hurdles, philanthropists are helping rural schools make important progress on a number of fronts. Among the most prominent initiatives has been the Niswonger Foundation’s work to help rural students prepare for, enroll in, and graduate from college. Niswonger is focused on northeast Tennessee, and has developed programming to help primary and secondary schools, while also offering scholarship and training opportunities to students. The foundation’s work has earned matching funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rural School and Community Trust, the Care Foundation of America, and other donors, as well as an $18 million “Investing in Innovation” grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

In numerous districts, Niswonger has worked to increase the number of Advanced Placement and online courses offered, broaden post-secondary dual- enrollment opportunities, and expand career and college counseling. There have been tangible results in the targeted districts: Enrollment in online courses grew by more than six-fold, more than 1,000 additional students took A.P. courses, and participation in dual-enrollment doubled. Expanded counseling helped students complete college and financial-aid applications and make campus visits. The next continuation of Niswonger’s effort will provide assistance to 30,000 students across 31 high schools.

There are also a number of interesting donor-supported charter-school initiatives underway in rural areas. For more than two decades, donors have found chartering to be a terrific tool for giving social entrepreneurs the ability to create public schools and open improved choices for families. But this has happened mostly in urban areas. Of the approximately 7,000 total charter schools open today, our research showed that fewer than 1,000 are in rural areas, and only about 100 in remote rural communities.

Exciting successes in rural chartering include KIPP Delta, which started in 2002 as a single school in Helena, Arkansas. Helena had lost much of its work and population over the previous 50 years, and become one of the state’s poorest areas. But the local KIPP network has seen tremendous success. One of its schools was rated the fourth best high school in the entire state. KIPP Delta has grown to six campuses serving an almost entirely low-income student body. But it faces challenges unfamiliar to many urban charters. For instance, because of sparse population, the network’s 30 buses must travel more than 1,000 miles daily. Spouses of teachers can struggle to find suitable jobs locally. And the region offers fewer cultural amenities. Donors could soften some of these problems.

In New Mexico, another charter school, the Native American Community Academy, was created to serve a different high-need population: Native-American boys and girls. NACA educates students from nearly 40 different tribes, integrating Native culture, history, and language into an academic program designed to prepare kids for college. In addition to a wide array of special offerings like internships, dual-enrollments with other schools, and extracurricular offerings like sports, poetry, and martial arts, the school also provides access to health care, counseling, and dental services. Its success spawned copycats calling themselves the NACA-Inspired Schools Network. NISN identifies, recruits, and trains fellows who are committed to establishing similar schools across New Mexico and in other states. It aims to develop ten schools in the next several years to provide children with rigorous academics while also promoting Native-American identity.

Out-of-the-box experimentation

The Kern Family Foundation is contributing to rural education by helping fund Teach For America’s special “Rural School Leadership Academy.” This yearlong program trains educators to be top-flight school administrators who understand the unique challenges principals can run into in rural regions. More efforts like this could create pipelines of talent for rural schools.

Colorado’s Donnell-Kay Foundation is trying something even more ambitious. After two decades of investing in fairly conventional education reforms, the foundation’s leadership concluded that something bolder was required. The result is “ReSchool,” a new way of delivering and overseeing education. The effort, which has also earned support from the Gates and Walton foundations, aims to have 50,000 youths (from the earliest learners to young adults) participating in unconventional school forms by 2030. Though the program isn’t limited to rural areas, it promises to have a substantial influence there by breaking down some of the physical constraints of today’s school districts, which are chained to geography. Among other innovations, ReSchool is contemplating helping students choose from wider ranges of school options, with help from adult guides plus new ways of measuring school quality and value.

For the last several years, the Albertson Foundation has been among the philanthropic leaders on rural-education reform. The foundation has always been generous, giving away more than $650 million in Idaho over the last half-century. But it has recently increased its focus on social entrepreneurship and nontraditional strategies. In addition to funding the research and analysis project of which I was a part, the foundation has invested in a range of hands-on projects, including a new-school incubator called Bluum. This new nonprofit aims to help create high-performing spots for 20,000 students over the next ten years. It will identify and develop school leaders, expand successful schools, and provide technical assistance to promising candidates.

The foundation has also supported the PTECH Network (Pathways To Early Career High School). PTECH is designed to provide students with the credentials and skills needed to secure high-paying Idaho jobs, while offering local businesses an expanded talent pool. The program now includes nearly 20 high schools and other programs that will lead more than a thousand students over the next couple years to job opportunities in aerospace, technology, health care, and other high-growth industries within Idaho.

One of the Albertson Foundation’s most prominent initiatives has been the Kahn Academy “personalized learning” pilot program. Started as a small workshop in 2012, it soon grew to a statewide initiative engaging 10,000 students across 33 districts. It was designed to see if an online-learning program could offer more high-quality opportunities to rural students. The program allowed local educators to experiment with Kahn’s digital content and platform so they could figure out for themselves how these resources might be best deployed. The foundation funded the participation of teachers and schools, and paid for associated research to find out what was most effective.

Looking beyond high school, the Philadelphia-based Lenfest Foundation sponsors a college-scholarship program specifically for public-school students from rural Pennsylvania. Donor Gerry Lenfest notes that rural students are often overlooked by selective colleges due to the geographical challenge of recruiting, along with other factors, and are likewise invisible to many scholarship programs. His scholarship shines a floodlight on this hidden talent, with a rigorous process that begins in an applicant’s junior year of high school. Beyond financial assistance, the program—chaired by Daniel Porterfield, president of Franklin & Marshall College—offers guidance on applying to college and support throughout a student’s enrollment, resulting in a graduation rate of over 98 percent.

By enlisting deans from numerous Ivy-league and equivalent schools for the scholarship’s selection committee, Lenfest put the program and the high schools that it draws from on their radar. In addition, graduates stay involved and help mentor the younger scholars, growing a community now 250 scholars strong and opening new pathways for the students of rural Pennsylvania.

We need a new conversation

Countless other efforts are underway to provide rural students with expanded and improved educational options. But there are millions of boys and girls in rural America with only one school option, and it could be neglected and untouched by the national conversations on school improvement that philanthropists have stirred up in recent years. More donors need to move away from the big-city fixation that has dominated charitable efforts in education for more than a generation. Philanthropists might consider taking inventory and curating promising programs already underway, launching new initiatives, replicating successful programs, and advocating for more investigation and public attention.

American elites are finally beginning to understand that when it comes to our economy and our politics, too many of our citizens outside of metropolitan areas are feeling that they have been ignored and left behind. There is a serious risk of that same neglect when it comes to the resources and inventive energy being put into rethinking and improving the education of our next generation of children. Donors should help advance the cause of rural schooling—both to ensure that kids growing up in remote locations have the same opportunities as their city and suburban peers, and to avoid neglecting a whole set of American communities that have too often been out of sight and out of mind for our nation’s leaders.

Andy Smarick, a Philanthropy contributing editor, is a Morgridge Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and conducted much of the research mentioned in this article while a partner at Bellwether Education Partners.