High-Poverty, Low Graduation Rates in the Rural South

Last Updated: May 26, 2010

This article appeared in the May 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

A new Rural School and Community Trust analysis of high-poverty school districts in 15 southern states reveals both low graduation rates and a racial and ethnic achievement gap that is troubling.

The districts studied include 616 rural school districts that are among the 800 rural districts nationally with highest student poverty rates.

Just over 6 in 10 students can be expected to graduate from these districts, compared with 70% among other rural districts and 67% among non-rural districts nationally.

The districts are more racially and ethnically diverse than other rural and non-rural school districts nationwide. Nearly three in five of the students in the study districts are people of color, and the poverty rate is more than double that of other rural and non-rural districts. Their students are twice as likely as rural students elsewhere to be English Language Learners (ELL), but they are also 24% more likely to be ELL students than rural and non-rural students in all other districts nationally.

Even among these high-poverty districts, those with the lowest graduation rates are more likely to serve children of color. Nearly half (47%) of the students who attend districts in the bottom fifth in graduation rate among these 616 districts are African American.

The study also identified 20 of the 616 districts that are high performing districts. They had graduation rates in the top 20% among all districts in their respective states, and their students were in the top 20% in reading and math proficiency on 2007-08 state tests. But the racial/ethnic gap was apparent here as well. Eighty-three percent of the students in these high-performing, high-poverty district are white and fewer than one percent are English language learners.

Not surprisingly, the 616 high-poverty rural districts in these 15 states operate with less state and local funding per pupil ($7,731) than for all other rural districts nationally ($8,134) or all non-rural districts nationally ($9,611). The funding gap is caused by a gap in local revenue shortages that is only partially offset by somewhat higher state revenue.

Some of these patterns may be a product of educational governance policy and structure. While the report reaches no conclusion about this, it notes that the patterns raise unavoidable questions. In states where high-poverty rural districts mainly serve non-African-America students, rural school districts tend to be small and fiscally independent. In states where these districts serve a student population that is disproportionally African-American, the governance system is more likely to be centralized (often county-wide or near county-wide districts with larger schools) and fiscally dependent on county or municipal government.

To a lesser extent, this is true of some rural districts with high percentages of Hispanic students. In fact, the largest median school district size is among a group of districts with a graduation rate between 49% and 62%. Hispanic students make up nearly one-third of the student population in this group.

High drop out rates in high-poverty rural districts may converge at the intersection of larger districts and higher percentages of African American and Hispanic enrollment.

The study was authored by Jerry Johnson, Marty Strange, and Karen Madden. It was supported by a grant from the AT&T Foundation. You can read the report here.

Read more from the May 2010 Rural Policy Matters.