“I don’t know that education is the center of the political dialogue these days, but it needs to be,” said Jamie Harrison, director of floor operations and counsel to Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of the U.S. House of Representatives, at a Center for American Progress event yesterday. “There is an education crisis in this country,” one which is hitting particularly hard for rural communities such as the South Carolina “corridor of shame,” that Rep. Clyburn represents. This “reflects on us as Americans,” a sign that we do not care about our rural children, said Terry Peterson, director of the Afterschool and Community Learning Network.
One of the best ways to address this crisis in rural areas is by encouraging afterschool and extended learning opportunities. Rural areas are in particular need of additional educational programs because of higher concentration of poverty and lower achievement rates. There are “special challenges to rural communities,” said Cynthia Brown, director of education policy at the Center for American Progress, ones which can be addressed by extending the school day with afterschool and weekend programs.
The first challenge, according to Roy Forbes, education consultant and author of a new report from the Center, is that rural is a difficult term to define. Although criteria such as population density and proximity to metropolitan area can be used as primary characteristics, other factors such as ethnicity and access to cell phone towers can also be used.
Those places defined as rural communities often face significant challenges to obtaining funding for educational programs, both due to unfairness in Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and a serious lack of resources. Title I—subtitled Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged and intended to ensure “all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education”—in reality creates an “uneven playing field when it comes to applying to funds,” since a state’s per pupil spending affects its available federal funds. For poorer rural districts, this policy effectively cuts off their access to federal funding, particularly for supplemental programs.
These programs are not an extension of the regular school day, Forbes said. With strong leadership, quality instructors, and a focus on relationships and fun, these programs create an incentive for achievement not found within the traditional school day. Afterschool programs support the mission of the regular school day by utilizing community resources and investing in quality instructors, improving success rates, and lowering dropout rates.
Despite the benefits, the challenges to implementing afterschool programs in rural areas are significant. Transportation, funding, and retaining quality leaders are significant challenges, particularly in the most rural of districts. Restructuring Title I and encouraging community support are two ways to support these programs, but ultimately the public dialogue needs to address the shortfalls in rural education, which are so often overshadowed by other challenges in the educational system. Rural children need the same level of support and commitment of resources as their urban counterparts if true educational equity is to be achieved in this country.