Category Archives: Rural schools

Baby steps toward reducing rural brain drain

The head of the town’s chamber of commerce facetiously says the local high school students walk off the stage with their diplomas onto a Greyhound bus, never to be seen again.Collage of 1-way signs surprinted with Suppose we could reverse rural brain drain with local information

The situation is not quite that dire, but the Bainbridge, NY, community is certainly not retaining or reclaiming enough of its young people to make even the most optimistic folks feel confident about the town’s future.

The brain drain has been on the minds of some local businesswomen who want to see the town retain jobs and create new ones.

As I’ve talked to owners and employees of businesses, when they learned I’m a writer, nearly every person has asked if I could write something they needed.

The needs they identified included radio ads, an employee manual, and web page copy — which are only a small fraction of the materials businesses really need to be competitive in a digitally connected world.

Filling local businesses’ needs for written content could become a business for some local graduate.

I suspect there are other business opportunities waiting to be discovered here as well.

Perhaps, like the town in this 2-minute video, we’ve assumed that students want to leave and not come back, when they would be open to coming back after college if they only knew what opportunities exist to create a business here.














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Maker movement makes rural life make sense

mountain forest with fog cover obscuring top half of photo
Rural America is a place where place-based learning and the maker movement can meet for economic development  when rural teachers take the lead.

A blog post by earlier this week by Leah Shaffer at MindShift begins by contrasting maker programs in cities with rural ones:

The maker movement has expanded greatly in recent years and much of the attention has focused on cities with high population density and large well-funded school districts. In rural districts, teachers are also developing maker projects to help students gain the benefits that come from hands-on experiences, while better understanding the needs of their communities.

Maker projects in Montana and Iowa

Shaffer reports on work by a students in a Montana community who built and programmed air sensors to monitor pollution from forest fires and wood smoke cause year-round air pollution, and one in which Iowa high school students analyze agricultural data they gather by flying drones over farm fields.

photo collage of drones in air surprinted "Drones gather data from farm fields, boost students' skills"

Shaffer’s sources note the need for teachers to anticipate skills students are likely to need a decade or more in the future and design projects that help them develop those skills.

Her sources also point out that schools can’t just equip a maker space and assume students will know what to do: Initial experiences must be structured.

Read the entire blog post.

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Rural school-community relationship not black-and-white all over

Cover of Why Rural Schools Matter shows small school lit at night in dark surroundingsI’d been chewing over Why Rural Schools Matter for a few weeks when I saw a news release from Bates College where the book’s author, Mara Casey Tieken, currently teaches.

There’s nothing like providing a news peg to make an ex-journalist feel the need to start writing.

The release said Tieken had been awarded the 2016 Lyton Award from the New England Resource Center for Higher Education for her research on rural schools and their relationships with their communities.

Comparison portraits

Tieken studied the experiences of two Arkansas communities and their schools: Delight and Earle. Race played a significant role in each community through the years, but in rather different ways.

In Delight, the school is the center of the 311-person community; people have learned to put community ahead of racial considerations. Both blacks and whites united against consolidation, which they saw as the death-knell for their community.

In Earle, the community was divided along racial lines when desegregation became law. Whites fled. Blacks gained political power. But economic power has remained in the hands of the whites, who don’t have children in the schools.

Good reporting, well written

Tieken writes well. I don’t mean just that she writes well for an academic: Her writing is good by literary standards.

If anyone needs exemplars of good nonfiction, they’ll find plenty in Why Rural Schools Matter. Tieken uses all the tricks English teachers talk about—from vivid word pictures and engaging narrative to variable sentence lengths—and makes them disappear into seemingly effortless prose.

Tieken also reports well. She tells both sides of a story, withholds judgment until the facts are in, discloses her affiliations and biases.

What’s not said

The communities Tieken chose are unique and their situations complicated. Delight and Earle feel almost like two ends of a spectrum. That sense of divergence makes the issues stand out in stark terms, but it also makes the possibility of middle ground seem remote.

I can’t help thinking that if Tieken  had picked two rural school districts in South Dakota, for example, the book would have been very different, that there might have been a greater sense of optimism among the community members about their long-term survival. (Disclosure: I was born in rural New York and after college lived in rural communities in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia before coming back my rural NY roots.)

My sense is that by choosing schools with such distinctly different racial experiences, Tieken unwittingly shifted the focus from why rural schools matter to why race matters in rural schools.

Of the two questions, why rural schools matter is the more difficult to answer to the satisfaction of anyone outside rural schools.

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Better together: rural schools and small towns

Tuesday evening’s #RuralEdChat was about Place-Based Learning. Guest “chatter” for the evening was Gary Funk, executive director of the Rural Schools Collaborative.
The Rural Schools Collaborative (@Rural_Schools for those on Twitter) is a new, multi-state nonprofit committed to the belief that rural schools and small towns get better together.


Since the chat was well-attended and likely, the transcript is lengthy. I’m going to curate excerpts to give a snapshot of what was said.

What is placed-based learning?

Is PBL implementation easier in rural schools?

What content can it be used with?

How does PBL fit with existing  programs?

Are your grants geographically limited?

The entire #RuralEdChat is archived here.

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Challenges of first-time rural superintendents

I’m used to reading about the challenges faced by first-time teachers, and I’ve seen several articles about the challenges faced by first-time principals.

The first article I’ve come across about the challenges of first-time rural school superintendents, however, is Cari L. Wrysinski-Guden’s piece at the School Superintendents Association website.

screen capture shows title and publishing info for article about first-time rural superintendents

The article includes four profiles of four rural Wisconsin superintendents.  It’s well worth reading, and it’s actually readable, not a boring piece with 1,000-word paragraphs full of academic jargon.

Wrysinski-Guden’s first experience as a superintendent was in a 600-student school district in central Wisconsin. She did her doctoral dissertation on the roles and challenges that other first-time rural superintendents had.

A sample from Wrysinski-Guden’s article is this quote from Justin Jerson, who was promoted to superintendent from being high school principal:

Many times [school board members] went to school and graduated from high school, so they’re an expert. I’ve tried, over the years, to inform them, but they’ve lived in the rural town for 60 years and they’ve been involved with the schools since age 5, as a student or a parent or now a board member for 20 years. How can an outsider to our district tell me differently?


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Pell Grant experiment needs rural scrutiny

The Department of Education recently announced an experiment in which it will make Pell Grants available for up to 10,000 high school dual enrollment students in the 2016-17 school year

The DoE wants to see the effects the needs-based Pell Grant funding has on the college attendance rates and college college success of lower income students.

The experiment is one that rural schools and rural communities should watch closely.

Rural areas have more students living in poverty than in urban ones, which gives them a proportionally larger stake in the outcome than metropolitan areas.

Most of the articles about the experimental program, such as these from The Washington Post, The Atlantic and ECampusNews, seem to focus on programs in which high school students from lower income groups attend classes on college campuses.

(Chester E. Finn Jr. says in an article on EducationNext that the Pell Grants would be restricted to students who take courses on a college campus or online. I was unable to locate any other source that mentioned that location restriction.)

When college-level courses are offered on college campuses, the college outcomes are significantly better than when the courses are offered on high school campuses.

We know, however, that the majority of dual enrollment students do not take classes on college campuses; they take classes in their high schools taught by high school faculty credentialed by a higher education institution (usually a community college).

I suspect that restricting government funding to only students who take college courses at a college or online would put rural students at a competitive disadvantage.

Rural students are often long distances from the nearest college campus. Coordination of class schedules and transportation could make college attendance an impossibility for rural high school students.

Taking classes online might not prove much more feasible than commuting to a physical campus:  High speed internet is unavailable at many rural schools and poor students may have no Internet access at home.

Less obvious than those considerations, but perhaps more problematic, is whether the Pell Grant rules will keep some students out of courses that fit their needs and interests.

For example, if Jason is a math and computer whiz but a disaster in classes that are reading and writing intensive, would his low GPA keep him from college work in the field that interests him? Such things happen.

In an urban area, Jason could probably find other nerds to work with, or get access to online training through computers and computer access at a public library. In a rural area, he may have no access to any of those resources which might make the difference between his graduating and not graduating, between a good job and no job.

Those of us who want rural young people to have as much access to education as their metropolitan peers, need to keep a close eye on the DoE experiment with Pell Grants for high schoolers.


Filed under Post-secondary education, Rural schools

Rural school-community-economy development resources

Curved arrows labeled Education, Economy, and Community chase one another in front of a green triangle.In rural communities, schools cannot be considered separate from economic development and community development. The vitality and policies of any one of the three impacts the other two.

Over the last eight years, the relationships of schools with their communities has been a recurring theme in my blogging. While I was digging out some of my writing on the topic for #RuralEdChat on Twitter, I decided I ought to post a list of resources that others might find helpful. I began with my own writing, but I am starting to add resources from other individuals and organizations, adding annotations to draw attention to an unusual insight or feature.

What’s happening in rural America?

Hollowing Out the Middle, dustjacketThe changing face of rural schools The number of students in rural schools in America is growing, becoming more diverse, and a significant number of those students are poor.

The rural brain brain Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas study of rural America showed a hollowing out: a loss of its most talented young people at the same time the rural economy has been transformed for those who stay.

Will new blood cure rural brain drain? The net migration rates suggest not enough people are immigrating to rural areas to offset the losses caused by young people moving away for college and jobs.

Who is to blame for rural brain drain?

Schools are complicit in rural brain drain Researchers found rural schools and their communities groom their brightest students for jobs and lifestyles not available locally, while giving almost no support to students who remain in the local area.

How could rural schools aid in community development?

Communities as school revenue streams Thinking of school as “a self-sustaining revenue facility” is a way to address school budgetary problems as well as wider community problems around medical care, food access, and community programming.

How could rural schools aid in economic development?

Beating the brain drain Changes to the education system can help alleviate the rural brain drain in small-town America, experts say.

Could schools grow a local economy? Greenville (NY) High School created what is, in effect, a small business incubator within its facility, giving a business rent in exchange for hands-on work experience for its high school students.

Entrepreneurship as rural economic key Creating their own jobs is a way for rural students to remain in rural communities. The Internet makes it possible for them to get advanced training, often for little or no cost.

Add skill applications to high school courses When teachers insert the question, “What you can do with this skill?” in coursework across the curriculum, they encourage students to graduate high school with entrepreneurial mindsets.

Teens see challenges, build solutions, even make money Examples of teens who have looked around them and found problems they wanted to solve.

How can rural schools and communities collaborate?

The challenge of providing challenges to adolescents Schools, businesses, and communities need to give teens opportunities to work alongside adults, to contribute to their communities, and to develop and apply real skills.

Integrating life with school for adult high schoolers Adding non-academic services helps dropouts get on track to diplomas and jobs.

Expand learning at shrinking playground Let’s require students to apply classroom knowledge to real world writing situations and offer hands-on learning of salable skills. [corrected link 2017-01-26]

This school grows its future teachers A two-course program allows students considering a teaching career to find out what being a teacher entails. The program not only develops teachers, but helps prepare future school board members and business leaders knowledgeable about how to support schools.

Teen after school programs that do more than distract Communities have initiated a variety of programs modeled after adult continuing education courses, apprenticeships, internships, and businesses to give their young people opportunities to do work that’s valuable in their home communities while developing skills and a work ethic.

Helping teens get ready for work Many first jobs aren’t fun. Students need to be taught how to adjust their attitudes and their jobs to make them opportunities to find challenge, enjoyment, concentration, and deep involvement.

What about the “no college for me” kids?

Support for Rural Vo-Tech Kids Articulation agreements may handicap the career and technical education students’ chances of success as compared to the chances of their academically oriented peers.

Ideas for businesses that require no college Six ideas for businesses serving the business market that require no post-high school training.

Skill acquisition without schooling The internet allows someone with determination to learn skills for a good-paying job without the expenses of a college degree.

Building narratives and community from school outward  Place-based, scholarly research by rural students can have direct, positive impact on local economic development.

Who is working on the three-pronged rural problem?

Rural schools as community centers A grassroots movement in Canada that opposes rural school closures and consolidations is attempting to convince the government that in a rural landscape, education cannot be regarded as separate from health, economic development, or tourism.

The Rural School and Community Trust has compiled Tools to fight rural school consolidation.

The Center for Rural Affairs ( developed a series of articles on why rural schools need to be kept alive. The articles are available as a 6-page pdf document.

The Orton Family Foundation empowers people to shape the future of their communities by collective, collaborative activities focusing on their unique strengths.

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The rural school-economy-community triangle

The 2015 Rural Education National Forum was held this week, drawing attention to the challenges faced not only by rural schools but also by their communities., which partnered with the Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia departments of education in sponsoring the conference, wrote this on the organization’s website:

If we are to transform educational and economic opportunities across rural America, then rural schools must become much more than a place—they must become the driving force where things take place.

Battelle recognizes that rural areas are different from urban and suburban areas in more than just population density, but rural America has the same need for meaningful and adequately reimbursed work as more densely populated areas.

Cover of white paper "Making Rural Education Work for out Children and Our Future" shows straight path into far distanceBattelle says rural areas need to create a “collaborative leadership ecosystem from the bottom up around an integrated education, economic, and community development strategy.”

If you’re one of the subscribers to this blog, you know the intertwined problems of rural schools, rural economies, and rural communities are one of my soapbox issues.

Making Rural Education Work for Our Children and Our Future, a free 12-page white paper from Battelle sketches the problems of integrating the three aspects of rural life. It also outlines a framework for developing solutions that solve local problems in ways that are both sustainable and scalable.  I recommend you download and read the 12-page PDF.

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Will New Blood Cure Rural Brain Drain?

Teaching, learning, and scratching out a living in America’s rural areas is not terribly different from the problems of teaching, learning, and scratching out a living in America’s inner cities except for one thing: There are significantly fewer people in rural areas.

We know from observation as well as from research that America’s rural communities are shriveling. Kids selected as the brightest and best are encouraged to go to college and then to where the good jobs are.

And rural America is not where the jobs are.

To see how population shifts are effecting where you live, visit the Net Migrations website.  The site provides reliable estimates of net migration broken down by age, race, Hispanic-origin, and sex for all U.S. counties each decade from 1950 to 2010. You can select your state and up to three counties to compare.The graph below shows the migration rates in my local area during that 60 year period. graph showing declining immigration in 3 New York State countiesCommunity and school leaders might do well to look at the NetMigration data to see what messages it holds for them.

Other blog posts I’ve written about life and learning in rural America include:

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Support for Rural Vo-Tech Kids

In my last two posts,  I wrote about the rural brain drain as described by researchers Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas in their book Hollowing Out the Middle.

Hollowing Out the Middle, dustjacketCarr and Kefalas link the decline of rural communities to the fact that rural areas across America are losing their college-educated young people while retaining those vocational students with bleak economic prospects.

They believe rural communities are committing suicide by pushing the brightest young people to leave while practically ignoring those who choose to stay or who return after finding life elsewhere was not for them.

At the same time I was reading Hollowing Out the Middle, I was taking a course in data-driven journalism sponsored by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

In the course, I began roughing out an idea for a data journalism project. It would investigate costs and benefits to local taxpayers of subsidizing, through dual enrollment courses, students going on to four-year colleges and compare them with the costs and benefits of subsidizing students in vocational/technical training who remain in the local area.

In the process, I stumbled on on some local information that gives credence to the thesis of Hollowing Out the Middle.

My local school district in upstate New York provides vocational training through a regional educational services agency, the DCMO BOCES. Articulation agreements between the BOCES and specific higher education providers (usually community colleges) allow graduates of the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Programs to get college credit for courses taken at the high school level.

Articulation agreements with selected post-secondary schools are set on a program-specific basis. So if Josh is studying automotive technology, the post-secondary schools at which he could apply his college credits may be limited to two or three community colleges in the state.

I did not realize that the articulation agreements typically do not allow  students to apply for the college credits until they have completed a semester —12 hours — with a average of 80%.

Assuming the students’ high school background is good enough that they don’t need to take remedial courses (a big assumption) during that first semester,  students would be taking primarily general education courses, like English composition, math, and history.

For most vocationally-oriented students, those general education requirements are likely to be the most difficult courses of their post-secondary work.   Sending those students off to cope with general education courses on their own — sometimes without so much as one course in their chosen field to keep them engaged — is handicapping them from the start.

Side note: The state Board of Regents is sufficiently concerned about the academic readiness of CTE graduates that it is looking at options for helping CTE students with the academic component of their high school program.

By comparison, the typical dual-enrollment programs for students headed to four-year schools focus primarily on general education courses.  Often those college courses are taught to students in their home high school either via distance learning technology or by a high school teacher with adjunct status at the college.  In small, rural high schools, those alternatives mean the academically talented kids, unlike their peers in CTE programs,  get the benefit of high school support for those transition-to-college general education courses.

Because general education courses are pretty much the same anywhere they’re given, academically talented students  can apply their credits at most two- and -four-year colleges anywhere in the nation immediately on enrollment, without having to prove they are up to the rigors of college during that first traumatic college semester.

I’ve not had time to do more than take a quick look at the articulation agreements, but what I’ve seen so far suggests some interesting stories are buried in the data compiled by local educational agencies.

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