The unique characteristics of rural places – like connection to place, the central role of schools in community life, increased opportunity to know people across generational divides – could be assets in the struggle to the high-school dropout rate.
More than a fifth of rural students don’t finish high school. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about what kinds of programs might help them graduate because research on rural dropout prevention is scarce.
Although usually focused on urban or suburban areas, research indicates that a variety of strategies can improve high school persistence and completion. These include:
In a recent whitepaper, we suggest that many of these practices might actually work better in rural schools because they mobilize rural strengths. Some of these assets include strong school-community relationships, robust parent involvement, and intergenerational relationships among community members. Rural schools and districts also have some advantages that can support dropout prevention, including less bureaucracy and organizational complexity, lower student-teacher ratios and a capacity to respond creatively to challenges by virtue of necessity.
Here’s how rural advantages might work to support dropout prevention:
School-community collaboration. Many rural schools are the epicenter of their communities, serving as an employment hub for local residents, a gathering place for civic activities, and of course, a place to educate students. Because of the school’s central role, they are often open well before and after school hours, offering space for credit recovery (making up classes), tutoring and adult education. This provides an ideal setting to ensure that at-risk students’ needs are supported.
Family engagement. Various community factors encourage family engagement in rural schools (for example, rural families often attended the same school, they may work/volunteer at the school, or they have friends or neighbors who work there). Rural schools can use these strong school-family and school-community connections to engage families of students who are likely to drop out of school, involving them in helping their children academically.
Adult mentors/advocates. One of the most consistent findings regarding “what works” in dropout prevention is the importance of a positive adult role model in a child’s life. These adult role models can serve as mentors, tutors or advocates for students. Intergenerational relationships are common in rural places. Because students lack anonymity in closely-knit communities, it’s more difficult for them to “fall through the cracks.”
Active learning. The term “active learning” refers to teaching and learning strategies that involve students in the learning process, as opposed to the traditional “stand and deliver” model of classroom teaching. Rural schools are in ideal locales for active, place-based learning, such as environmental and outdoor education, local history projects or community service efforts.
Career, technical and accelerated education. Rural businesses, civic organizations and postsecondary institutions often maintain close relationships with community schools. School-community partnerships can facilitate cooperative relationships with businesses and institutions of higher education to support internships, apprenticeships and accelerated learning (such early college high school or dual credit programs).
Rural youth may have reasons for dropping out of school that are different from those of their non-rural peers. These include conflicts about moving away from their home communities for work or college; a low local return on investment for education (as when few local jobs are available in a rural place); lack of higher-level courses at their high schools; or pressing family caretaking, business or farm responsibilities. But there’s also new evidence that family characteristics (such as family income or the presence of biological parents) play a far larger role than rural or non-rural location in the likelihood that students will drop out.
Given this, we think that, in addition to the practices described earlier, rural schools should continue to employ dropout prevention strategies that directly address the reasons their students refuse school.
Rural schools confront assorted challenges associated with their locale, but they can leverage their many strengths to prevent students from dropping out. By mobilizing strong community relationships and abundant rural opportunities for active learning, it’s possible for schools to help students persist, even in resource-poor environments.
In the end, dropout prevention is about ensuring that youth have the tools to make their own life choices—so that life won’t make such choices for them. Rural young people deserve all the tools we can give them.
Caitlin Howley is a rural education researcher and technical assistance provider with ICF International. Allan Porowski is also a researcher at ICF, specializing in dropout prevention studies.