Rural schools educate more than 9 million (19%) students in the United States (National Center for Education Statistics). Understanding the unique challenges facing rural education is an important step to achieving an equitable education recovery. As part of our research-practice-partnership to understand learning recovery programs across California’s nearly 1,000 districts, we will be launching a statewide survey of school districts in spring, 2023. In our previous work, we found that rural districts were less likely to respond to online surveys. How can researchers engage with rural schools more effectively? We talked with Rindy DeVoll (Director, California Rural Education Network) and Anmarie Swanstrom (Superintendent, Mountain Valley Unified School District) about some of the challenges in working with rural schools. The following has been edited for brevity.
What should researchers know about rural schools?
Anmarie: Rural schools are very unique – the way schools are run, the way they operate, and the needs we serve are different from urban or suburban schools. My district has 84% of students who are economically disadvantaged. It is in a very rural part of Trinity County in northern California, and has next to no access to resources or amenities because the nearest town is two hours away. Getting our students, and the residents in our community, access to services is very challenging. It falls on our schools to provide medical and mental health services to our students. As a superintendent, I wear so many hats: I am the superintendent, the high school principal. I also handle all personnel issues, as well as doing CBO (Chief Business Officer) work.
Rindy: I want to talk about the multi-grade issue. Two county offices of education reached out to me in 2021 because administrators need support for teachers teaching multi-grade levels. I am not just talking about high schools. I am talking about teachers who are teaching TK (transitional kindergarten) through 8th grade. There is the “old school house” that still exists in the 21st century. One teacher said, “I need help… my TKers will come up and tug on my arm while I am trying to do small group instruction with 8th graders.” There is not a lot of research on multi-grade/multi-age education. I also want to say that rural educators are nimble, flexible, and adaptable. One good example is Paradise Unified School District. It is resilient; it brought the district back through strong leadership after the most destructive and deadliest wildfire (in California history).
Anmarie: As a Superintendent, I wear so many hats: I am the Superintendent, the high school Principal, and I also handle all personnel issues, as well as doing CBO (Chief Business Officer) work. Right now I am also writing our district’s LCAP (Local Control Accountability Plan). Staffing and capacity challenges are magnified in small rural districts.
How can researchers engage with rural schools more effectively?
Rindy: Go to them, establish those in-person relationships, and listen, listen, listen to their stories about their historical contexts, water issues, funding issues, curriculum, and instruction. We want improvement in rural communities; we need to hear and listen, and adjust our system to serve students better. Most educators do not have the capacity to complete a survey, so if you can’t be there in person and ask the survey question, the next best thing is to host a video/virtual meeting to ask questions and get people’s perspectives.
Anmarie: We are so isolated, we rarely hear things that will be applicable to us, and we have to be efficient with our time because we have so many things to do. Conveying why it is important and beneficial for us to participate in the research is key. State policymakers don’t always consider us when making decisions. Some policies are not applicable to small rural communities, and we feel alienated. So when we get an email, we don’t feel encouraged because policymakers don’t ever seem to consider us in their policy. There is a lot of mistrust. But if the message is coming from someone who lives here every day, having their voice explain “this is how it benefits my districts,” that helps a lot.
Rindy: Also, rural educators like to connect with each other first before talking to researchers or government officials. I usually give them 30 minutes to do breakout rooms (I don’t go in there); then start my questions and requests.
How can researchers communicate findings back to rural schools?
Rindy: Curated resources that are too journalistic and academic are not going to work. Rural educators need practical solutions. Going back to the multi-grade issue I talked about, how do we transform the curriculum for multi-grade teachers? How do we help schools look at their systems through data? How will the system change the instructional materials review process for small and rural districts? Place-based learning that leverages community assets and project-based learning suit the rural context. The system of our county offices of education is a good place for communication. If we can identify one person in each county office of education as the rural contact, then people like researchers can go to that person to send out those requests and research findings. Many educators in rural schools attend the SSDA (Small School District Association) annual conference, and researchers could go to those convenings.
Anmarie: Have a designated rural lead at the county office of education. It would be great if the lead were a superintendent at the district, who has that boots-on-the-ground experience. Research findings need to fit into a one-pager with lots of pictures. Research and policy people need to acknowledge the diversity in district size. One size does not fit all, so have someone go out and hear from school districts, instead of assuming we are all the same. We can have the districts be the trusted messenger to disseminate research findings, through our board, social media feeds, or community outreach.
The research reported here is supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through grant R305X220028 to the Public Policy Institute of California. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.