High-Poverty Rural, Small Town Districts Concentrated in Distinct Regions

Last Updated: August 24, 2009

This article appeared in the August 2009 Rural Policy Matters.
More than 13 million children and adolescents attend school in rural communities and isolated towns. Of these, over nine million go to school in rural communities with fewer than 2,500 people. Another 4.2 million more go to school in towns so small and so remote from urbanized areas that anyone from one of our nation’s great cities who was suddenly dropped there would not doubt for a second that they were in a rural place.
This means that America’s rural children number more than four times as many students as attend public schools in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore City, Washington DC, Atlanta, Boston, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, and Indianapolis — combined.
Our 13.2 million rural students attend school in over 9,500 school districts, with an average enrollment of just under 1,400.
Conditions in these schools and in the communities they serve vary a great deal. So do the cultural patterns, the demographic and economic characteristics, the histories, the political values, and the role of education in their lives.
This diversity runs contrary to some of the most pervasive misconceptions about rural communities and their schools (including the myth that rural places are overwhelmingly white and reasonably prosperous). And because this diversity is rarely understood or accounted for when public policy decisions are made (see Getting Real About Rural Schools), we take a special interest in rural communities where various combinations of poverty, racism, and the ruination of natural resources have impoverished life.
In these places, schools can be powerful forces for the good, both by educating individuals and by engaging youth in making their communities better places to live. But only if their circumstances are acknowledged and addressed.
Characteristics of the 900 Poorest Rural School Districts
Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the data base for funding under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (yes, also known as No Child Left Behind), we have identified the 10% of rural and remote small town school districts with the highest percentage of student poverty.
All together there are 900 school districts. We have dubbed them the RT-900. (See How We Identified the Poorest Rural Schools for more information about the methodology.)
The RT-900 districts enroll almost 1.3 million students.
To continue our urban comparison, that’s as many students as attend school in Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, Boston, Atlanta, Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Minneapolis, and Indianapolis combined.
The Census Bureau estimates that more than 37% of students in the RT-900 districts live in poverty, higher than the estimated poverty rate for most urban districts, including high-poverty cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, and Baltimore.
There is no racial majority among these rural and small town students — 28% are African American, 23% Hispanic, 8% Native American, and 41% white.
Over 70% of RT-900 students qualify for federally subsidized meals at school, slightly higher than the average rate of our urban comparison districts.
Distinct Geographic Clusters
Ninety percent of the students in the RT-900 live in 17 contiguous states spanning from North Carolina to California, none further north than West Virginia and Missouri. Most of the RT-900 districts outside these states are on Indian reservations in the lower 48 states or serve Alaska Native communities.
Rural 900 (click for larger image)Despite this geographic concentration to the south, there are some distinct regional clusters of schools that share common identities based on their similar histories, cultural patterns, and economic sagas. In most cases, these regions span two or more states, and often have imperfect boundaries. Some are well known: Central Appalachia, the Black Belt, the Mississippi River Delta, the Ozarks. Others are less well defined but distinct nonetheless.
One dense cluster of high poverty schools share the Piney Woods region where southwestern Arkansas, northwestern Louisiana, East Texas, and southeast Oklahoma meet. Another hugs the border with Mexico, all the way from the southern-most tip of Texas to California’s Imperial Valley.
There is a distinct constellation of high-poverty rural districts in the Southern Plains, running from central Texas across the southwest corner of Oklahoma and into eastern New Mexico and Colorado.
Among the most pronounced are the high poverty rural districts that conspicuously share the Upper Rio Grande River Valley, beginning at the headwaters in Colorado’s San Luis Valley and running south through the New Mexico Highlands and the I-25 corridor all the way to the Texas border.
And there are two clusters of high-poverty districts serving Indian Reservations, one in the Arizona, New Mexico, Utah region, and one widely dispersed across the Northern Plains and the Pacific Northwest.
The Rural Trust will continue to document these districts and explore regional and other patterns in their circumstances. Look for our reports in upcoming editions of Rural Policy Matters.
Related Articles About the Rural 900 
Don’t miss Getting Real About Rural Schools.
Read more from the August 2009 Rural Policy Matters.