I attended the National Community Education Association’s (NCEA) annual conference last weekend in Phoenix, Arizona where they held the first national forum on “Revitalizing America’s Rural Communities.” Every child has the right to a quality education…and improving access and opening up opportunities for students in rural areas is a worldwide dilemma we must address.
I am a NCEA Board Member and the reason why I like this organization is they recognize the need to make education more relevant to students by helping them build job and life skills they will need for the rest of their lives. Along with that, NCEA recognizes that schools need to be much more aware of community resources and the need to connect schools to their communities and get more participation from parents and businesses. That’s why I’m on the board…I feel very strongly about what they do in terms of the connection to the community and the need for institutions to think much more broadly about the way in which their schools exist in the places that they are.
According to the Why Rural Matters 2009 report, there are more than 9 million public school students enrolled in rural schools districts in the United States alone…that’s 19% of the nation’s total public school enrollment. Rural populations suffer from bandwidth challenges; they suffer from the ability to scale projects because of the lack of teachers and resources; and they also suffer with regards to diversity of education offerings because they don’t have enough teacher specialization to support all the curriculum and learning needs students may have. This is also very true around the world.
In many ways, the challenges and the solutions collide. Technology is a valuable tool to connect to each other and other parts of the world, in addition to the ability to leverage online learning or blended learning to support curriculum gaps. But because of the lack of resources, bandwidth, etc., rural areas are often the most poorly serviced with regards to technology access even though it’s one of the areas where technology can help the most. So there’s a balance we have to address.
We need a greater focus on revitalizing rural education…making sure we have a healthy dialogue about rural challenges the way we do with urban challenges. I think one of the great opportunities in the rural environment is the ability to connect schools and students to their local community. In my keynote at the NCEA event, I talked about leveraging public and private partnerships, service-learning applications (see my earlier blog post here), to blended learning environments to make learning that much more relevant and personal to individual students which is critical. In order for education in a rural setting to be a success, community officials, state and local agencies, and local businesses need to come together to address the problems in a collaborative way to leverage each other’s resources and investments.
Through our U.S. Partners in Learning program, we committed to a 5-year partnership with the state of New Mexico to focus on schools which act as a catalyst for 21st century workforce readiness and economic vitality in rural communities to improve academic success. The purpose was to also figure out how the private and public sectors could sit side-by-side to address an education problem. This was not a case of business leaders stepping in to tell the school what they should be doing…rather, recognizing and embracing the various expertise that could be brought to the challenge.
We funded four projects, each focused on a different learning experience – running a small town newspaper, giving a facelift to a local main street, opening a storefront, and building single family homes. In Loving, they recently celebrated the completion of a new house. These examples reflect the strong local connection New Mexico communities have with education and how the schools are able to create opportunities and hope for students…which is a very powerful thing.
Australia has an interesting idea for rural revitalization…send city kids to the country. What’s your suggestion to improve rural education? What’s working or not working in your geography? How can we help?