SOE News

From the dean: Working with rural schools

Improving education for students in rural North Carolina is a major challenge facing us. Nearly half of North Carolina students attend rural schools and nearly 30 percent of them drop out before graduation.  Nationally, a quarter of all students attend rural schools and the dropout rate is similar to that in North Carolina. 

The challenges are formidable: recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers and administrators; providing effective professional learning opportunities for educators; preparing students for an uncertain future; working with families in poverty; and accommodating growing numbers of students and families whose home language is other than English.

At the same time, rural settings can be remarkably nurturing environments for students, featuring supportive and caring families and communities. Rural students lack only the opportunities to learn that are needed to fully develop their capacities as citizens and employees. As the Leandro decision demonstrated, it is we, the people of North Carolina, who have failed to ensure our rural children and youth the opportunities they deserve. 

The School of Education is strongly committed to improving the lives and learning of children in poverty. Because many low-wealth rural schools face the challenges of attracting and retaining high quality educators and providing effective professional learning opportunities, the School of Eduation feels a particular responsibility to reach out to these schools. 

Certainly, we also feel responsibility for children in urban and more affluent areas. We continue to have strong partnerships with Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City schools.   We have a budding partnership with Durham’s middle schools that includes educators at North Carolina Central University and Duke University.  We are also working with schools in Guilford County and in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County. At the same time, we believe we have developed resources that can make a difference for high-need rural schools and students.

The National Research Center on Rural Education Support (NRCRES) is the centerpiece of our work in rural schools.  Since 2002, faculty in the Center have secured $51 million from public and private sources to study rural education and to use this research knowledge to develop and evaluate effective intervention programs in nearly 1,000 rural school districts in 46 states. Among the most effective of these programs is the Targeted Reading Intervention (TRI)

TRI provides research-tested instructional strategies to teachers via webcam to help struggling readers in early elementary school. Children who benefit from TRI have made larger than expected gains in all areas of reading.  Most importantly, the very lowest skilled children have benefitted the most, a result that distinguishes TRI from other early reading interventions. Nebraska TV recently featured a segment on rural Nebraska schools whose students are showing remarkable gains in reading, thanks to TRI.

Another research-tested program from the NRCRES is the Rural Early Adolescent Learning Program (REAL). In REAL, teachers learn research-based instructional and organizational strategies to promote students’ adjustment in early adolescence. Participating teachers report increased classroom effectiveness as the social and behavioral context for early adolescents’ learning improved. Their students ─ especially minorities ─ reported increased academic achievement.

A third program that has proved effective in increasing both student learning as well as their classroom engagement is CareerStart. Middle-school teachers in four rural N.C. counties learned through CareerStart how to make more explicit connections between the curriculum and the world of work. Randomized clinical trials showed that, as a consequence, CareerStart students performed better on mathematics and reading end-of-grade tests, recorded fewer unexcused absences and suspensions, and came to value schooling much more highly. The students who benefitted most were those of color and those from lower-income homes.

These are but three of our initiatives that have proved their worth in improving the school performance of rural students. You can read about these and many other initiatives focused on rural schools on our Web site.  

But we want to do more. We are looking to continue and strengthen this work by building an infrastructure to support it. We are seeking both public and private funds to establish a Rural Education Center in the School. We have the research capabilities to continue to be a leader in the nation in this area. A Center is essential not only to continue our cutting-edge research but also to transform the research into effective interventions and to ensure these get into the hands of educators and families in low-wealth rural districts. We welcome your ideas about how to push forward our work with rural schools.