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CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES: New Alliance Report Calls on Congress to be More Responsive to the Needs of Rural High Schools

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“As the Congress prepares to take up major education legislation this year, this report clearly should help federal policymakers recognize the important role that rural schools can play in improving student outcomes.”

Despite often being shortchanged by current federal education policies, rural high schools routinely use practices that could be useful to boosting student performance in their urban and suburban counterparts, according to a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education. The report, Current Challenges and Opportunities in Preparing Rural High School Students for Success in College and Careers, also finds that growing rural populations and increased diversity mean that high schools—and high school students—in too many rural communities are in trouble. Currently, one in four rural students fails to graduate from high school, and the rate is even lower for minority youth.

“As the Congress prepares to take up major education legislation this year, this report clearly should help federal policymakers recognize the important role that rural schools can play in improving student outcomes,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.

“America’s rural high schools offer solutions, but they also face challenges,” Wise continued. “Most of the recent debate on high school reform at the federal level has not involved rural schools, but when one out of every four rural students fails to graduate from high school, it’s not just a ‘local’ issue, it’s a national crisis. No longer can our nation write off large numbers of children, whether by race or by geography, and still meet the steadily growing skill demands of the twenty-first century.”

According to the report, Current Challenges and Opportunities in Preparing Rural High School Students for Success in College and Careers, the tight-knit nature of rural communities often has resulted in the development of promising practices in meeting the challenge of preparing students for success in the twenty-first century. For example, in the highly personal rural environment, at-risk students are not as likely to be overlooked. Additionally, successful rural high schools have utilized online courses and other distance learning to expand advanced learning opportunities for their students. And by using local businesses as “place-based” learning opportunities, schools engage students’ interests, which often creates a college- and career-ready culture.

One third of the nation’s high schools are rural and the number of rural schoolchildren is on the rise, the report finds. Nationally, one in five children attends a rural school. This growth in enrollment brings new challenges such as growing population diversity in the form of English language learners and additional costs for bilingual teachers, new curricula, and other services.

Current Challenges and Opportunities finds that rural high schools receive disproportionately lower amounts of Title I dollars, the largest source of federal funding for low-income school districts. Often characterized by declining local tax bases, rural school districts also encounter difficulty generating sufficient property tax revenues. Furthermore, rural districts have less staff to apply for additional competitive grant funds.

Financial constraints are just one of the challenges that the report identifies. A shortage of teachers trained to deliver a rigorous college- and career-prep curriculum, difficulty in addressing the needs of an increasingly diverse student body, limited social service support, and less access to teacher professional development create other challenges in ensuring that all students in rural areas graduate from high school prepared for college, work, and life.

The challenge for the federal government, working with local and state partners, is to develop policy solutions that recognize and address the unique circumstances that rural high schools and communities present. As the report notes, it is imperative that federal leaders understand the full impact—and unintended consequences—of current education reform efforts on America’s rural communities as Congress begins to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

“Whether a rural-educated child remains in her community or begins a career in Silicon Valley, our nation desperately needs her operating at the maximum of her ability,” said Wise. “Building the nation’s capacity to prepare rural secondary school students for success in college and careers will improve America’s competitiveness, strengthen rural economies, and ensure that every child is a graduate with an opportunity to succeed. It is my hope that the Congress will use ESEA reauthorization to address the diverse and unique needs of rural high schools and their communities,” said Wise.

The complete report is available here.

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