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Report: Challenges, Poverty at Rural Schools 'Invisible'

A journal published by a non-profit civil rights organization has found that concentrated poverty imposes a significant burden on many of the nation's rural schools, which face many of the same challenges as their urban counterparts.

The Fall 2010 issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine, published twice a year by the Southern Poverty Law Center, reports that many rural school districts struggle with violence, homelessness, substance abuse, and academic failure at record levels, yet often those problems remain invisible.

The series of articles also points out the diversity in race, ethnicity and degree of ruralness in what it calls "country" schools, documenting varied experiences from Appalachia to South Dakota.

"As it turns out, ignorance about rural schools is pretty widespread," writes Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance and a former teacher, in her introduction to the series. Here's more of what she had to say.

"We soon discovered that no one—not even the federal government—has a single definition for what constitutes 'rural'. We also learned about the degrees of rurality and the world of difference between a rural school that's a mere bus ride away from a big city and one that's hundreds of miles from a population center."

Little of the reporting in Teaching Tolerance uncovers new information. What it does do is shine a spotlight on the challenges faced by rural schools. The series uses statistical research from the Rural School and Community Trust about poverty, demographics and rural school districts to compile graphics showing the face of rural schools in plain numbers. One graph, "The Poorest of the Poor in Rural Education," shows how the solid band of poverty and poor academic indicators spreads across the southern United States, from California to North Carolina.

The series doesn't cover new ground, either, in unraveling the myths and complexities rural schools face as they navigate political issues such as school consolidation, shifts in federal funding policies, and education reforms imposed from remote statehouses and from Washington.
Tim Lockette writes:

"Rural America is often the place where economic shifts and public policy changes have their most obvious impact. One big-box retailer, one line in the Farm Bill, one plant closing can change the landscape forever. It's a place where the economic and environmental consequences of public policy are written in the landscape—if you can read the landscape."

The Teaching Tolerance reporting does not recommend policy solutions for rural schools, although it does point to the harsh effect of 2002 changes to the Title I funding formula. That tweak, the target of criticism by rural-education advocates, wound up shifting more money to poor, urban schools and away from small, poor rural schools. (Check out previous posts about Title I funding on the Rural Education blog for more details.)

The series also found a common thread in successful rural schools. Reforms often emanate from inside those schools and their communities, reports Lockette, and don't necessarily follow prescribed political policies from state or federal governments.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala., focuses on bigotry and discrimination and works through litigation, education and advocacy.

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