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Study to Examine Rural Early-Learning Policies

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is launching a $6.5 million project to study early-childhood education policies nationwide with an emphasis on how policies differ in rural and urban areas, according to the Lincoln Journal Star.

The study will use researchers across the country to track children from early-childhood classrooms through early elementary to identify policies that best prepare at-risk students for school. Researchers are especially interested in examining the experiences of rural children and have identified 10 rural school districts to participate in the multi-year study.

Iheoma Iruka, director of research and evaluation at the University of Nebraska's Buffett Early Childhood Institute, told the Journal Star that the study would look at how early-childhood education shapes a child's development. "We have an opportunity to add a much more refined and precise understanding about children's experiences and transitions from preschool through 3rd grade, which will provide important considerations for future interventions, policy and research," Iruka said. 

A 2014 report found that access to preschool is lacking in many of the most rural states. During the 2013-14 school year, 10 states did not offer preschool programs according to The National Institute for Early Education Research. Eight of those states have a higher percentage of students enrolled in rural schools than the national average of 25 percent. In three of the states without programs—Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota—more than 45 percent of public school students attend rural schools. (Mississippi launched a program during the school year but its data were not included in the report).

Several states and nonprofits have recently focused on improving rural access to early-childhood education. Several states with high percentages of rural students were among the 18 winners of federal grants in late 2014 to develop or expand preschool programs. In Utah, the state legislature authorized a program in 2008 that provides in-home preschool to rural students. That program expanded in 2013 with the help of a federal grant. In 2014, the nationwide pre-K network Educare opened an early-childhood school for Native American children on an Indian reservation in northeastern Nebraska. 

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