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Rural Schools Should Use Strengths to Prevent Students from Dropping Out

Rural communities should capitalize on their strengths, such as strong community relationships and opportunities for active learning, to prevent high school students from dropping out, according to a new white paper.

ICF International fellow Allan Porowski and senior manager Caitlin Howley wrote that rural schools face unique, location-related challenges, so they should turn to their assets to improve students' high school persistence and completion, according to "Dropout Prevention: Challenges and Opportunities in Rural Settings." An estimated 22.5 percent of rural students don't complete high school, which is slightly better than the national average.

"Unlike practices or programs requiring substantial training, staff, or funding, many of these practices are not only feasible in rural schools, they leverage the unique assets of rural communities and rural social dynamics," according to the paper. "By mobilizing the tightly knit social fabric and abundant opportunities for active learning in rural communities to engage and retain students, it is possible for rural schools to prevent dropout even in resource-poor environments."

Some of the ways rural communities can use their strengths to students' benefit include:

  • School-community collaboration: Many rural schools are the center of their communities, and that provides an ideal setting for at-risk students' needs to be met;

  • Family engagement: Rural schools can use their strong school-family and school-community connections to work with potential dropouts;

  • Adult mentors/advocates: Studies have shown the importance of having a positive adult role model, and those kinds of relationships are facilitated in tight-knit communities;

  • Active learning: Rural schools are prime for active, place-based learning, which means connecting students' learning to the environment, outdoors, local history, or community service;

  • Career, technical, and accelerated education: Rural businesses, civic organizations, and postsecondary institutions often have good relationships with nearby schools, and should be used to support internships, apprenticeships, and accelerated learning.

The four rural problems highlighted in the paper were: limited funding to support education (lower per pupil expenditures), declining student enrollment, lengthy and costly transportation, and limited availability of high-quality teachers and employees.

The paper's authors note that most research on dropout prevention has focused on urban schools, and none of the dropout-prevention programs reviewed by the What Works Clearinghouse studied an exclusively rural setting. They encouraged more research to understand whether those urban-centered programs can apply to rural contexts, as well as what specific elements of those are universal versus location-specific.

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