After years of shrinking enrollments, rural school populations are on the rise. Minority students and English Language Learners account for a high proportion of the increase, and many of the poorest and poorest prepared children are entering classrooms in states with the fewest resources to teach them.
So announced the Rural School and Community Trust this week in an extensive new report, Why Rural Matters 2007: The Realities of Rural Education Growth.
"Between 2002-03 and 2004-05, enrollment in schools located in communities of fewer than 2,500 increased by 1,339,000 (or 15%)," write Jerry Johnson and Marty Strange, policy analysts for the non-profit Rural School and Community Trust. School enrollment in larger communities (populations over 2,500) fell by 2% in this same period.
The study calls "most startling" its finding that the number of minority students increased 55% in rural schools, "with some states experiencing increases of over 100%." Rural schools in the Southeast and Southwest are the most ethnically diverse in the nation.
In the school year 2003-2004, nearly a half of all English Language Learners (ELL) were enrolled in rural schools. The numbers of rural ELL students between 1989-90 and 2004-05 rose at more than seven times the rate of total rural school enrollment increases. Numbers of ELL students were growing fastest in the Southeast: up 66%. "Rural schools serving proportionally larger ELL student populations, on average, face higher concentrations of traditional barriers to educational achievement," the report stressed.
Rates of high school graduation among rural students, 2003-2004
Source: U.S. Dept. of Education, NCES, via Rural School and Community Trust
The researchers found graduation rates for rural students were below 70% in ten states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee) ““ seven of them in the Southeast. Johnson and Strange also noted that while minority students and English Language Learners have shown better success in smaller schools, the rural school districts of the Southeast are some of the biggest in the nation. They urge education policy-makers to invest in smaller schools.
Johnson and Strange found that in several heavily urban states — notably California and Maryland — rural students tend to be "underperforming" given their states' socioeconomic advantages. Under city-centric administrations, rural students "are out of sight, out of mind."
The biennial report also looks at teacher pay and test scores. Copies (both print and digital) of "Why Rural Matters 2007" are available from the Rural School and Community Trust. And detailed online data for 13 "high priority" states is available here.