When we hear about initiatives that help low-income schools we often think of an overcrowded inner-city school in one of the country’s more heavily populated cities. Rural schools usually don’t come to mind, but maybe they should. Rural schools educate over 9 million, or nearly 20 percent, of the children in this country.
Students that attend rural schools generally graduate at higher rates than nonrural students. But there’s a large graduation disparity among rural students of color. A disproportionate number of students of color and English language learners attend rural schools in high-poverty areas. The graduation rate in these districts is 7 points below the average of nonrural districts and 10 points lower than other rural districts.
Rural schools face distinct challenges, but they often confront issues similar to those of urban schools. Both types of schools have a difficult time attracting and retaining effective teachers, and students have difficulty accessing health and social services. Rural students, however, are often unable to take advantage of public health services and food distribution centers due to their location. They may also spend one to two hours commuting to school, which limits their ability to participate in afterschool enrichment and extracurricular activities.
Doris Terry Williams shows that full-service community schools are a viable solution to the issues that rural schools face in her report, “The Rural Solution,” released by the Center for American Progress in September. Community schools are public schools that provide services for students, parents, and their communities. The schools provide their students with school-based health services and afterschool learning opportunities as well as job training, English classes for language learners, and antipoverty assistance for adults. Public schools become the center of the community under the community school model.
Williams emphasizes that community schools strengthen communal ties because they allow people and institutions to collaborate. Moreover, full-service community schools may be the most economically feasible way to reduce the negative influence poverty has on a child’s academic achievement in rural areas. Bringing together several services in one place can lower building operation costs and maintenance. And the joint purchasing of co-located services and programs can reduce the cost of supplies, relieving the strain on local resources.
Community schools also provide more opportunities for out-of-school time activities for students, families, and community members because they tend to stay open longer during the weekdays and are open on the weekends. Some community schools have gone further to formally incorporate out-of-school time activities for students into the school schedule by expanding learning time. Expanded learning time is a reform strategy that adds time to the school day, week, or year for all students in a participating school.
According to Isabel Owen in her report “Breaking the Mold,” also released by CAP in September, schools with low test scores often have shorter school days and years and are more likely to serve students in low-income areas. Several studies have indicated that high-performing charter schools credit time as a key factor in their success. Expanded learning time coupled with the community school model, therefore, could allow schools to address multiple factors in children’s lives, raise achievement, and strengthen the school and community.
The community school model is not a uniform one where all aspects of the model are applicable to all schools. But adaptations of the community school concept can work well in rural areas. Take the case of the local elementary schools in Bertie County in northeastern North Carolina. The median income in Bertie County is only $28,531, and more than a quarter of its 19,000 residents live below the poverty line. Sixty percent of Bertie County’s population is African American.
Despite its location and high poverty rates, 73 percent of Bertie County’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in a structured learning program. Bertie elementary schools boosted reading and math scores in the previous three school years due to the district’s focus on providing early childhood learning along with a full array of child and family services. The district also built partnerships with higher education institutions to train and recruit teachers and leverage public and private resources, which added to its success.
Community schools help students because they address academic and nonacademic factors. Nonacademic issues including physical and mental health and financial problems have a remarkable effect on student performance and community schools tackle these issues. The community school model—which can be adapted to meet the needs of particular communities—has been successful in both urban and rural settings. It’s time for policymakers to take this concept more seriously when looking for solutions to the country’s education and poverty problems.
Dyci Manns is an Intern with the Ethnic Media team at American Progress.