Contrary to oft-accepted assumptions, rural America is host to a concerning amount of the nation’s communities in poverty. Of the United States’ 100 most impoverished counties, 66 are located within Texas, South Dakota, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Children in these regions experience extensive negative implications that impact not only their performance in schools but their efforts towards achieving individual and community-wide social mobility. 48 of the nation’s 50 counties with the highest rates of childhood poverty qualify as rural counties.
Essentially, members of rural communities fall victim to a stagnation that becomes prohibitive to their intellectual growth as students and their financial stability as a part of the workforce.
A fundamental solution to the cycle of poverty that persists in rural America is reinvigorating the quality of education of small, underserved rural school systems in an effort to establish greater equity in the classroom experiences of American students across the country.
My focus on the disparities in rural educational standards today is inspired by the stark contrast I see within Kentucky’s public school systems.
The experience of students in Jefferson and Fayette County Public Schools (Louisville and Lexington, respectively) differ from schools in agriculture-based western Kentucky and the coal country east in the Commonwealth. By nature of being the two largest cities and urbanized hubs of social and cultural exchange in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, access to the internet is not often a concern for residents of Louisville and Lexington. Kentuckians in rural Appalachia, however, experience economic and social inequity by quite literally being kept in the dark.
According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, “Almost 700,000 people in Kentucky only have access to a single provider without more affordable options, and 146,000 people don’t have many options for wired internet providers at all.” In a state with a population of 4.3 million, these are substantial demographics of Americans who lack cost-effective access to the information highway. In the age of the information revolution, efforts to incorporate resource-efficient modes of homework assignment through online engagement demand that students maintain increased and regular access to the internet. Families already in poverty simply cannot meet the new de facto requirement. Therefore, allocating funds to promote initiatives such as 1:1 school-sponsored Chromebooks and redirecting policy focus to providing rural communities with access to broadband internet can transform these school districts and these students’ lives — allowing them to experience new equity in learning that, by virtue of urbanization, large city schools do not struggle with.
Now, it would be exclusionary to assume rural school inequity exists and hurts the chances of success for residents of a few states only. The Center for Public Education reports in January of 2018 that in the United States, half of the school districts and twenty percent of primary- and secondary-aged students nationwide reside in rural areas.
One in four rural children lives under the poverty threshold. Living in poverty subjects children of a learning age to readiness gap(s) that result from “food, housing, energy security… poor nutrition and inadequate healthcare.” these readiness gaps only increases as the curriculum within rural and urban school districts set off in contrasting directions as students reach the secondary level. In North Carolina, for example, there are less than half as many AP courses offered in the state’s rural school districts as there are in urban schools. The easy high-school course-load allows for more promising rates of high school graduation in rural communities than urban centers; however, as of now, students from rural backgrounds are more likely to drop out of or not pursue a four-year post-secondary degree because of a college’s drastic increase in academic expectations from the standards of rural schooling.
The practical approach to solving this problem would be to prioritize college-preparatory curriculum in rural high schools which particularly lag behind the course offerings of their large city-school counterparts. Encouraging the AP Research and Seminar courses as a part of the College Board’s Capstone initiative, for example, can train high-school-aged students to engage in upper-level analytical and research writing so that the demands of college courses, theses, and dissertations appear less daunting.
It’s hard to position large, inner-city school districts directly against small, rural schools because the challenges that grapple each end of the education equity debate starkly contrast each other.
At the heart of the debate on educational equity in the United States rests the objective of securing welfare and equal access for students within all American school systems.
However, rural America tends to be overlooked in the legislative proceedings and execution of educational policy reform. The above are just two key ways to reinvigorate American small schools so that one out of every five American students are not left in the dark — literally and metaphorically speaking. By prioritizing policy that supports rural education and equal access of opportunity to rural school students, these students will experience a drive to develop financial stability through social mobility, a level of intellectual stimulation that results from new and challenging courses, and a will to surpass the postsecondary achievement standards stereotypically set for students of rural backgrounds.