A closer look at rural education in the United States

Aug 16, 2021

In this podcast, Jenn Folsom of ICF Next speaks with Caitlin Howley of the ICF child welfare and education team, Sam Redding from the Academic Development Institute (ADI), and Janet Throgmorton, principal of Fancy Farm Elementary School, to discuss the unique aspects of rural schools in the U.S. and how they’re responding to the challenges of COVID-19.

Full transcript below:

Jenn Folsom: Well, hello, world. I'm Jenn Folsom. I'm a growth leader here at ICF Next. And I'm here on this ICF podcast to talk about rural education, something that is so interesting and so complex, and something that really we should all be thinking about, and particularly in this time of COVID, and what a crazy time it's been. With me today, I have three guests. I have my colleague, Caitlin Howley, her co-author, Sam Redding, from ADI, and they are the co-editors of this book that's so incredible, called Cultivating Rural Education, a People Focused Approach for States.

And we also have joining us from western Kentucky, Janet Throgmorton, who is the principal at Fancy Farm Elementary School, to really give us the boots-on-the-ground perspective of what life in rural education looks like. So, thank you all for being here today.

Caitlin Howley: Thanks for having us.

What makes rural schools unique?

Jenn Folsom: Caitlin and Sam, you guys have been working on this book for a long time and it's out there. And the main thesis here is that you propose that rural schools and districts deserve education policies and programs that address their particular needs, their particular context, and their strengths. What makes a rural school or district different from schools that are in non-rural places?

Caitlin Howley: Well, they're not entirely different species, but they are different in ways that are meaningful for policy and practice. So here are a few ways that they are different. They often are characterized by being geographically remote from larger places. They tend to have sparser populations. And so as a result, they have fewer human and capital resources. But they still have to accomplish all of the things that any school anywhere in the US is required to accomplish.

Because they are often in places peopled by smaller populations, they have fewer people available to play all of the roles in schools. And so, educators are often called upon to play multiple roles. So, you know, they handle several student clubs as well as teaching a full course load, and in some cases driving the bus. Then they also face particular sorts of challenges, for example, difficulty recruiting educators and leaders and teachers, especially in high need subject areas like math or advanced science or foreign language, special education.

And they face additional contextual constraints like less access to broadband, to support online learning, and, because poverty rates are higher in rural places than they are in non-rural places in general, they often lack access to the funds to purchase things like specialized instructional space, like science labs, and have, in many cases, less capacity in certain non-instructional areas like grant writing or evaluation or data management. But I also think another important thing that is sometimes overlooked is that there are rural social dynamics and practices at play in rural schools and districts, that are different from those in non-rural places, just because of the way that people need to interact and engage with each other.

Jenn Folsom: Oh, yeah? How so?

Caitlin Howley: Yeah, to make community life work, and so rural people will tend to have multiplexed relationships, which is a fancy way of saying that people relate to each other in more than one way. So, for example, we might be neighbors, but also colleagues at the school, and you might be married to the loan officer at the bank, from whom I need to get a mortgage. So, you know, people depend on each other.

And so, there's this sort of informality and politeness that structures everyday interactions. And that is important to how people work together. And so, some things that would work in a larger, more anonymous place, don't work in rural areas. But, of course, I don't want to rule out the strength either.

How do we define rural schools?

Jenn Folsom: I know, and I'm going to put that over to Sam. Sam, can you give an example of how something that might not work in a more anonymous culture, or something that would work in a rural school education system?

Sam Redding: Well, first of all, let me say that what makes a question like that difficult is getting an idea what is it you've got in mind when you say, rural. And just yesterday, we had staff here at ADI home base in Lincoln, Illinois, some of whom were working with the state of Alaska to develop a rural project, some of whom work with Native American tribes in Idaho and Oklahoma, others of whom are working with rural school districts in Alabama, and what you start to realize is, when you say, rural, there's as much variety and difference from place to place as there is between, even more, as there is between what you'd call rural and what you'd call urban or what you'd call suburban.

Jenn Folsom: Right. Are you talking like Alaska rural or Illinois rural? They're not the same.

Sam Redding: Exactly, exactly. Or Appalachian rural, or Mississippi rural, or rural, and I think Jennifer Seelig had a chapter in our book on what we call a clear view of rural education, and that was to say, and we're speaking to maybe state and district education leaders, and they're considering what do we need to be doing to support rural education. We said, well, the first thing you need to do is get a clear view of what you mean by rural education. And even across the state and often within a district, what you mean comes out as a variety, so that it's not just one thing.

You have a variety of settings. And, you know, Jennifer gave a little more of an academic definition also, to say we usually look at three different factors or variables, one being economic. What's the economic base of this area? Another being demographic, and cultural attributes, who are the people that populate it? And the third is geographic or environmental. So, what is the surroundings? So, in your mind, I remember a few years ago when I visited Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, and realized it was like a three-hour drive from Bismarck.

So, you got a couple hundred miles to the nearest really outside community. Well, that's a whole different element of remoteness, among other things. And when I think of rural here in central Illinois, which means agricultural, and it means small town, but it often means in very close proximity to more medium sized cities, where there might be universities and resources.

So, I think the first thing we would always encourage is first define what specific rural setting, community schools, you are talking about. And then we can go to the next level of what's appropriate for them. Somebody had the quote in the book about, instead of saying that you have an approach or a project or whatever, that can be applied in many places, think of it as that you would develop something, create something, that would apply to a specific place. So, it's with the place in mind. And so, I think that's one lesson we would certainly echo.

Caitlin Howley: Sam, that's really funny, because that reminds me of a quip that's attributed to a rural sociologist, whose name, of course, I cannot remember right now. But the quip is if you've seen one rural community, you've seen one rural community.

Sam Redding: Yeah, that's great one. Well, in fact, yesterday, Caitlin, as you know, the people I'm talking about, we had them here and they're all enthusiastically describing these projects that they're developing in these different places, that they're calling rural. And we kept asking the question, so what's so rural about it? What makes it rural?

And when you're talking about schooling and education, a lot of times it's hard to make that differentiation. And what has helped me to understand some of this, our colleague Bee Vong has taught us to understand about disproportionately positive effects. In other words, a lot of what you're going to propose educationally in a rural district, you would say, well, doesn't that sound like good education anywhere? Yeah, but it might be even more powerfully appropriate in a rural setting, because of whatever factors might be limitations or challenges, which we can discuss also.

What are the strengths of rural schools?

Jenn Folsom: And so, you know, Caitlin, I think I cut you off a little bit, you started talking about some of the differences that may be the challenges of education in rural areas. But what about the strengths? What's positive and good about the educational environment in a rural setting?

Caitlin Howley: There's lots of things, and what drives me up a wall is that they are unheralded. Like there's just, they should be shouted out and celebrated, because they are substantial and meaningful. So, for example, there's often this phenomenon in rural communities where the school serves as a kind of community center. I mean people know the teachers, maybe they're related to them and are neighbors, and the schools are places where people gather to drop their kids off, but also to talk and to exchange dues and then maybe they come together in the evening for a game, or a fair, or some kind of community activity, and other entities in the community use the school. So there's that tight knit relationship between school and community.

I think another thing that's really interesting is that the small size of some rural schools makes it easier to implement and scale new programs and practices. There just isn't the sort of bureaucratic complexity that educators might face in other kinds of schools and districts.

Sam Redding: I think one thing we always keep in mind, the potential for that kind of close-knit community and personal ties, the potential is there, because people live in close proximity to each other. They, what was Caitlin's fancy term, multiplex relationships they are in. They might work together. They might live in the same neighborhood, or in the same rural area. They might go to the same church. They might, they might, they might.
But as a sociologist convinced me years ago, a lot of what you assume there's the potential to happen in terms of relationships among people, today, a lot of that doesn't necessarily happen. There has to be a catalyst for it to happen.

Jenn Folsom: Right.

Sam Redding: It has to be made to happen by design. And that's the work of school people and social agency people and youth group people, and whatever is making those relationships happen, and that potential for community to be realized.

Caitlin Howley: You know, Sam makes a really good point, that I appreciate, that rural communities are not sort of premodern and unsophisticated and out of step with modern life. They, to the extent that our nation has changed, so too do rural communities. And so, if we see sort of this civic engagement and community closeness eroding large scale, well, that's happened in rural places, too. The potential is certainly there, because of the proximity with which people live to each other, but Sam is absolutely right. It requires real effort to make those things happen.

Jenn Folsom: You designed this book, I think, to reach different policymakers at different levels: state, and regional, and local levels. What kinds of policies and programs should we be thinking about, that are rurally responsive?

Sam Redding: Caitlin's going to be better equipped to give you the specifics, but a couple general statements is that we talked a lot about, also, how do organizations that may be regional or state level, but have an interest in rural communities, how do they come together to take a look to see what the needs might be? Part of that is, well, you got to get to know them. Some of it is a very personal thing.

And also, is an understanding that each community is different. But there has to be a mechanism that brings that into part of the decision-making process. If you're developing policies, if you're developing programs, developing projects, how do you bring the rural interests to the table? How do you take it into consideration?

So, I would say that's the beginning of how this begins to happen, in terms of what I call external agencies, external interests, how they support what you want to happen at the grassroots. So, it's not like you want to overstep it, but you want to be catalysts for it. So, with that said, then Caitlin, what are some examples?

Caitlin Howley: You know, I'm hesitant to make policy prescriptions without including the voices of the people with the lived experience, who will be affected by the policies and programs that are eventually planned and implemented. So, you know, we've talked about how various and diverse rural places are. That's one kind of constraint on making generalized policy prescriptions.

Another is that, because each place is so different, they'll have different needs in context. And so, our book really proposes a way to bring people together, to collectively think about the issues, and how they're being addressed currently, and how they might be addressed even more fully and collaboratively in the future. I think we could certainly talk about some of the common kinds of issues that rural places face.

But the solutions to them, I think will be best if they're designed by and in partnership with the people who actually live and work there.

Why are community-based collaborations crucial to rural schools?

Jenn Folsom: Yeah, I think in the book, you talk a lot about the sort of cross-sector collaborations or community-based collaborations. But why are they so important? Why is it, is it more crucial than in non-rural populations?

Sam Redding: Let me put a plug also for a couple of the authors, the way they approach that very question. And I noted that, I believe it was Jennifer Seelig and Karen Epley and Shaniqua Williams, they tended to give examples that were more specific, and often school-based. But in the chapter that Erin McHenry Sorber wrote that was on the community context, she took a longer longitudinal profile of two basically counties in West Virginia and one in Maryland, and talked about the interweaving of the various agencies that came together for the benefit of rural education, rural youth, rural families.

So those are two different perspectives, whether you're looking at more specific project descriptions or you're looking at that larger community context that involves a lot of agencies, that might include state universities, community colleges, local social agencies, cooperative extensions, 4H, youth groups like that. I mean, all of that exists in and around rural areas. But they're not always brought together, woven together for the benefit particularly of rural education.

Caitlin Howley: To my mind, there's this weird thing that happens in rural schools sometimes, in which rural kids get the impression that to succeed, they need to get as much education as possible, and because the resources for higher education might not be local, that they need to move elsewhere to pursue higher education or some sort of post-secondary training. And then there is a further complication, wherein then young people perceive that they are overqualified for jobs in their local communities.

And so, there's this kind of compounding effect in which bright young people leave their rural hometowns, and maybe they come back, but it results in increasing outmigration. So, yeah, we had a--

Jenn Folsom: Yeah, that's like a brain drain, if you will.

Caitlin Howley: Right, it's called the brain drain. And we want to ensure that everybody has the experiences educationally and socially to help them be their best selves, to live full lives, and at the same time, we need to engage community and economic development entities to help build opportunity structures locally and regionally, that will permit rural young people to stay local, if that's what they want to do. And so, combining your education improvement efforts with your labor and workforce development, and economic development opportunities, will contribute to the sustainability of rural places.

Janet Throgmorton: Caitlin, this is Janet. It's ironic that you mentioned that. I sat on a meeting this week with the consulting firm that our local economic development board has put together. And we were addressing just that. They wanted to meet with local educators from elementary all the way through our higher education and technical schools, and those were the issues that we were discussing, were how to educate our workforce in not just that they had to go on to a four-year degree, but that the trades were so important to our area, and the need was so great for those things. And this is really the first time that our economic development board has reached out to the elementary and middle and high school setting, outside of our technical school, to find out how do we go about doing that.

How do we go about bringing everyone to the table and getting that workforce the training, tools, and education they need to build the economy here in our own area.

Caitlin Howley: And it sounds like you appreciate that involvement.

Janet Throgmorton: Yes, because I said to them in our meeting, that at an elementary level is probably where our families are the most involved in their child's education. And so therefore we're communicating and seeing them quite often. And we don't know the things that our Economic Development Board is doing to try to reach those people, because they're not reaching them through us. And we're the people that they trust.

And so, we should probably be a part of that communication effort, in order to open some of those technical training and education opportunities for those families.

Jenn Folsom: Well, and I was so glad for you to pipe in there, Janet. And it's probably a good opportunity for me to explain how I even know Janet. Talk about your three degrees of separation in rural communities, I see a little bit of that here in my little neighborhood in Alexandria. And I do a little bit of writing for NBC, and I was talking about sort of the impact on professional women and families and workers with COVID. And my good friends, who are sisters from western Kentucky, said, oh, you should talk to our friend Janet.

They said Janet was our hero when we were in high school. She was the basketball star. And then she became a teacher and then the administrator of the school where our mom was the principal. You should talk to Janet. So, I got to talk to Janet about her experience during COVID, of just one of the many challenges. And she's just become a friend and a really interesting person for me to have in my life. And she really talked to me and taught me a lot about, as school districts and entire communities switched to distance teaching and distance learning, the struggle that they had with rural communities and access to broadband.

What’s been COVID-19’s impact on rural schools?

Jenn Folsom: Tell me a little bit about your experience, Janet, and what that was like, with elementary school students in Fancy Farm, Kentucky, Graves County.

Janet Throgmorton: Well, it caught us off guard a little bit. We thought we knew technology and we thought, actually, that we were sitting rather well with the technology that we had. But we were not prepared to teach in one setting while the kids were at home learning in another. And so, very quickly, we learned that, even with a great computer, and the access of that for kids, if they did not have the broadband access at home, that was very good, that we weren't going to be able to do those things with them very well.

And many of our families, their internet is what they have through their cell phones, and through that tower that their cell phone's hitting. And so they don't have broadband access, a line driving straight to their house. And so, that was definitely a challenge, because you were dealing with choppy service and those kind of things.

And so that's where that interdependence of a local rural community becomes so important because our local telephone company stepped up and put some Wi-Fi outside each elementary building in our area. And then even for our city school district, they did the same thing, so that families could at least drive to a place to get internet access through the Wi-Fi, and hopefully be able to participate in that way. We were able to send some hot spots home with kids. But when you don't have great cell service, which is unfortunately a huge issue in our area, in lots of rural areas, it's amazed me we can put Mars Rover on Mars and communicate with it daily, but we can't have decent cell service in rural areas.

And so that became an issue. And so, we eventually reached the point where we just opened our building to part of the students, who did not have that access at home, and they were able to come into the building and use the Wi-Fi that we have here, to be able to continue their learning. And we were trying to reach in to them as much as we could, with food and supplies and just different things that their needs that needed to be met, and even for the families. Because some of the families for their work were using our school computers and technology services, to be able to continue to work from home.

So, it was definitely a learning experience for all of us, and an eye opener even to our policymakers and representatives, that we're not doing a great job of ensuring that there's equal access to those technology tools and the broadband. We just reach a place and stop. And we don't make sure that it's affordable and available for everyone, that at that time needed it, for everybody.

Jenn Folsom: Yeah, and Janet, you mentioned, it's not just the broadband, right? I remember you making some house calls to provide some on-site IT support for laptops and switching out the ones that don't work and that sort of thing. So, it was really about sort of the broader digital literacy.

Janet Throgmorton: Yes, because we have a lot of students that are being raised by their grandparents, some even their great-grandparents. And they had never Zoomed or done anything such as that. And so, there was that gap of learning for them, and how do they even help the kids to accomplish what we were trying to accomplish. So, yeah, we had to go out into the homes and meet on the front porch, you know, due to COVID, sometimes, and try to help them figure out how it works, and what to do, and how to turn things in, and how to make sure their kids are doing the things that they need to do, and replace equipment, because things would quit working.

So, it was definitely a great effort by our families to buckle down and learn what to do with the technology, and all of our staff to assist families in the technical side of it, over the phone and in different ways. But it was hard.

Jenn Folsom: Yeah. For sure, and then, Caitlin and Sam, what are you seeing across the country in terms of what have we learned about the correlation to education and broadband in our rural communities over the last year and a half?

Sam Redding: Well, a couple things, first of all, because I just spoke to the people yesterday working in Alaska, is to not assume that rural or even remote means a lack of broadband. Some places, because of that context, have for years kind of been out front in it. But other places are pockets where it hasn't been as strong. And as Janet has relayed, we kind of had to do a lot of catching up.

The one thing, I live just about 15 miles from a little school district, Hartsburg-Emden, which has two buildings and graduates about 15 kids a year from its high school. But my daughter teaches there and I have grandkids in the district. So, I had a keen eye on it and was trying to kind of write up the experience with COVID. And what made me so gratified and so kind of sentimentally proud of both public education and rural communities both, and I know this happened all over the country, but almost immediately, as soon as the COVID thing hit and we knew we were kind of locked down and kids were stuck at home, the cook still came to school and prepared sack lunches.

And the bus drivers charged up their buses and took on the sacks, and they grabbed up whatever laptops they could find. And they delivered them around to schools. Everybody just kind of jumped to the task, and I think a lot of that is just characteristic of the hearts of teachers, but it's also, I think, reflective of how rural communities can pull together in situations like that.

Jenn Folsom: Yeah, absolutely, I was so encouraged to hear Janet tell me that, when they didn't have enough PPE, the local churches were sewing masks, and Janet's the bus driver also. And both of her bus drivers contracted COVID. So, and when I often was a little jealous, frankly. My children attend I think the fifth largest school district in the country, that was like steering the Titanic to be responsive.

And I was so impressed with how her smaller school district was able to be very responsive to their very individual family and students' needs. In terms of sort of lived experience, Janet, you had a lot of these challenges over COVID. Like can you point out a couple of things that you never thought you would have to encounter as an administrator, and how you solved that, and that sort of lessons we've learned. And then I'll turn it over to Caitlin and Sam to see what they've learned in addition to that.

Janet Throgmorton: Well, one thing, just the preparedness, that we did not have when we exited school in March, all of a sudden, that we weren't as prepared as we thought we were, as far as even our teachers' ability to run class via the internet. Our kids adapted much quicker than we did, because that was their world. They were FaceTiming constantly with friends and doing those kind of things.

And so, we definitely caught up on that by the time it was time to go back to school in the fall, and figured out how to do that well. I think one of the huge pieces was the mental health piece. You know, I think our families didn't realize how much their mental health depended on their kids being in school every day. But the other piece is when everyone is confined at home, and parents were trying to work from home or they were laid off from their jobs, it could get pretty intense. And we were trying to find ways to deal with that for families, when we were able to bring just small numbers of kids into schools.

You know, the state's first push out for that was for those kids that you were concerned about academically. But then we also started to look at those kids that we were concerned about emotionally, and not just for their mental health, but for their parents as well. And, you know, who did we need to bring in, because those parents needed a break. And some of those, our families, were grandparents, raising several grandchildren or something along that line.

And some of them, it was we were taking food out to the homes, but it wasn't necessarily always hot meals. So, we were also looking at the families that we knew. There may not be a lot of hot meals happening there. And so those were some of the kids that we invited to come in.

And just, I had parents that reached out after the fact, and said that was a lifesaver, because I was at a breaking point. And then, trying to find help for them beyond that, and that's still something we're dealing with, trying to find ways for not just our students, because we can bring people into the school building and counselors and do some of those things with our kids when we have them here, but we also have families that are struggling and suffering and trying to find ways to meet the mental health needs, of those, when it's not real accessible in our area.

There aren't a lot of adult counselors. There aren't a lot of adult psychologists, that we could send families and parents to for that help. And so that's a challenge we're facing right now, something I never thought we would be tackling as educators. But as a pivotal piece of the community in the area, a lot of families, that's all they know who to go to. So, we've tried to work to meet those needs.

Jenn Folsom: That's right. And Caitlin, are you seeing the same thing at the national level, across, I mean, we've learned that there are no two rural areas that are the same. But is this a common theme?

Caitlin Howley: Yeah, it is a huge theme, and commonality. I think it's become really clear that we need each other, and that schools are vital connective tissue for communities of all shapes and sizes, rural, non-rural, small or large. And what has been so heartening has been to see that teachers, students, school leaders and community people, saw it ever more clearly as a result of the constraints imposed by COVID.

So, Janet's work is remarkable. And so is the work of so many rural educators across the nation. And I think that we have gold in our midst here, in these places, that just leaned into making it all work for students and families. And, you know, I hope that educators are appreciated for their Herculean efforts.

Jenn Folsom: And as the daughter of a public-school educator, you know, I think that they're never given enough credit, for some of the hardest jobs in the world. And, you know, I got to be honest, I'm a little bit worried about what the numbers look like, in many of the rural areas, as I'm looking at some of ICF's vaccine hesitancy research that we do with HHS. There are a lot of rural areas with lower vaccine penetration rates.

And we're trying to get schools opened. What is one thing that each of you would make an ask to your communities, to your elected leaders and policymakers, what's one thing given this increase in the Delta variant, that you want to put out there to the world, so that we can get everyone safely and hopefully back to school this fall?

Sam Redding: Well, I think you said it. I mean we're mostly concerned about the pockets where there is a low percentage of vaccination. The little rural district that I told you about, where my daughter teaches, is also the community where her husband, my son-in-law, is a tractor mechanic and the implement dealer. And he was on a ventilator for three months, unconscious, near death from COVID.

Jenn Folsom: Oh, my.

Sam Redding: And my daughter spent the time she spent with him, her colleagues, the other teachers donated sick days to enable her to be with him. And he came through it. But I would think anybody that saw that in that town, in those surroundings, I cannot imagine why they would not want to get vaccinated. But I know there's still some of that resistance, and that is probably the biggest thing we all need, because I think rural kids particularly had so much to lose because so much of the value of them being in a rural community, in a rural school, where the close personal relationships, the opportunities for a lot of experiences in extracurriculars, the chance to really know their teachers, and know each other.

And a lot of that was what they lost when they were confined to home, and they weren't in a face-to-face relationship. So, the fact that rural communities kind of stepped to the fore and made up for a lot of that, I think is great. But I think those kids still also had a lot to lose, because what they lost was what is of most value, I think, in those communities.

Caitlin Howley: I think that rural people get a little exhausted by the stereotypes. And so, my recommendation would be for people who are respected in each community to speak respectfully with their neighbors about what their fears are, what their hesitance is, and to provide them with some clear information, to address their concerns and fears. And I think that the way that people work is, as more people around you do something, you are more inclined to also do it. And so, there's an element of community spread, in the positive sense of everybody, of more and more people getting the vaccine.

Sam Redding: Yeah. I'm reminded, I think it's in Erin's chapter, the term boundary spanners, when she talks about how your school board members, your superintendent, your principal, your teachers, the people that are part of your school, are also part of the community. And so, they're expanding those boundaries of what constitutes a school, what constitutes a community. And they have the potential to be the great ambassadors in that kind of personal carrying of the message and communicating it, and doing a heck of a lot of listening. And I think you're right, that's how this is going to happen.

What do rural schools need to be successful?

Jenn Folsom: And Janet, I'll close with you. What's one big ask that you have to your community and to policymakers, to help you be successful, boots on the ground, foot on the gas pedal of the school bus, stuffer of all the lunches, and leader of your elementary school. What's one big ask?

Janet Throgmorton: I just think that there would be that equal opportunity access in information. You know, we're out here. It takes more money to sometimes get things to us. But what we can produce in the end is worth the effort. And we're educating kids as well, sometimes if not better than other school districts, because we know how to use the resources that we have efficiently.

And so, and that they would visit our places, and see what goes on, and what's real, because I think we have a lot to offer, and a lot to learn, even from them, and about the policies and the whys in the way they do things. But just to even educate our public, even in COVID and other things, just with all of the information and the opportunity and access to everything that everyone else has.

Jenn Folsom: Well, that's great. And, Janet, I continue to be in awe of the incredible work that you and your staff do, and that all our rural educators are doing, to get through this incredibly challenging time, that is not quite over. And Caitlin and Sam, thank you for, in your free time, writing and editing this book that's so important, that covers so much of our country. So, thank you again.

Check out the book, Cultivating Rural Education, a People-Focused Approach for States. And thank you to ICF for hosting this podcast.

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