Last Updated: September 30, 2013
This article appeared in the September 2013 Rural Policy Matters.
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As a non-profit organization committed to the well-being of rural children, schools, and communities across the nation, the Rural Trust asserts first and foremost that rural matters.
Twenty percent of the U.S. population lives in rural communities, and 23% of its children (11 million) attend school in a rural place. America cannot reach or maintain its goals as a world economic, political, or moral leader without its rural schools and communities.
As people who live and work in diverse rural places, we know firsthand that rural people and places want to be counted among America’s valued assets. They want to participate in the national discourse about the values and future of this country. Unfortunately, the discourse is rarely informed of the assets or challenges in rural communities and makes little provisions for the capacities and contributions of rural people and places to enhance and transform the country’s economic, educational, and political landscape.
Rural Trust Mission Statement
Our mission is to help rural schools and communities grow better together by involving young people in place-based learning linked to community and economic development; conducting research and advocating for appropriate educational policies and equitable funding for rural schools; improving rural access to highly effective educators; and increasing rural capacity to design, implement, and support appropriate innovations.
We know that many rural youth desperately want to remain in their communities. This desire marks the presence of the often unrecognized and undervalued assets of rural people and places, and a potentially game-changing way of thinking that is ripe for rural — and even national — school, community and economic development.
The Rural School and Community Trust has sought to bring rural America in all of its diversity into the mainstream of American consciousness. We have worked to give volume to rural voice, to secure adequate and equitable resources for rural schools, to counter the prevailing narrative of rural decline, to connect the work that students do in school to the community and economic development needs of the local place, and to work with grassroots stakeholders to assess rural policy and create supportive rural policy climates.
We have framed our work within the context of social and economic justice, understanding full well the direct correlations between and among education, family and community well-being, and the strength and survivability of a democratic and just society. Our commitment remains unyielding.
The Rural Trust has articulated core principles that inform the primary strategies of our work: Research, Policy, and Advocacy; Place-Based Education as a Theory of Rural School and Community Change; Rural Leadership, and Rural Capacity Building. We explore these four strategies and the principles behind them.
Principles of Rural Research, Policy and Advocacy
1. All children should have access to equitable and equal educational opportunities, regardless of where they live.
2. All students should be engaged in excellent academic programs that guide them to understand the place where they live and help to build stronger and better communities.
3. Schools should be accessible to students’ homes, governed by people they serve with leadership that reflects the composition of the community, financed to ensure excellent outcomes, maintained, and designed for full community participation.
4. Teachers should be prepared to instruct and lead in a rural setting, content and culturally competent, able to connect learning with place, and compensated fairly.
5. Assessment should be designed to inform and influence learning and instruction, measuring student progress and teacher performance using multiple methods.
6. Discipline in all cases should be just, fair, impartial, and conducive to enhancing the learning environment.
7. Technology should used to increase interaction between and among local places, with universal access to telecommunications services.
Research, Policy, and Advocacy
The Rural Trust's research strategy focuses on 1) documenting the character and importance of rural education; 2) researching and communicating key rural education issues and rural perspectives on those issues — for example, adequacy and equity in school funding, the recruitment and retention of effective teachers and leaders, early childhood education, and diverse populations; 3) exposing the impact of selected state and federal policies on rural education; and 4) advocating at state and national levels for more positive policy climate for rural schools and their students.
The Rural Trust provides information, analysis, and other supports to rural residents and organizations in their efforts to advocate for, partner in, and lead meaningful reform to ensure access to high quality education for all children.
The Rural Trust advocates for a transformed national research and policy agenda that addresses the concerns of rural schools and communities and reflects the realities of small, isolated, under-resourced, rural and small town schools.
This need has grown in recent years as emphasis on “evidence-based” reform has driven federal policy and become expected in private philanthropy. With limited fiscal and human resources, rural schools and communities are at a distinct disadvantage in the effort to validate the reform models that best suit their specific needs. The Rural Trust advocates for policies and funding to translate effective models into programmatic approaches available to rural schools.
Finally, the Rural Trust works to document the efficacy of place-based education and select rural education reform models.
Principles of Place-Based Education
1. The school and community actively collaborate to make the local place a good one in which to learn, work, and live.
2. Students serve as scholars and citizens, doing sustained, standards-based academic work that draws upon and contributes to the place in which they live while providing connections to and understanding of the global context.
3. The community supports students and their adult mentors in new roles as learning deepens and contributions to community and economic development expand.
4. Schools mirror the democratic values they seek to instill, arranging their resources so that every child is known well and every child’s participation is needed and wanted.
5. Decision-making about the education of the community’s children is shared, informed by expertise both in and outside the school.
6. Educators, students, and community members expect excellent effort from each other and review their joint progress regularly and thoughtfully, using multiple measures and public input to enlarge assessments of student performance.
Place-Based Education as a Theory of Rural School and Community Change
The Rural Trust is committed to implementing and supporting place-based education as a school and community turnaround strategy.
We define place-based education and its characteristics as teaching and learning that is rooted in what is local — the unique history, environment, culture, and economy of a particular place. The community provides the context for inquiry-based learning; student work focuses on problem solving around community needs and interests; and, community members and organizations serve as resources and partners in every aspect of teaching and learning.
Place-based education that connects students’ work to the real and important issues in their lives has proven to be an effective strategy in addressing at least two pressing issues in American schools and communities. The first is the active engagement of students in meaningful, standards-based work leading to college and career readiness. The second is the strengthening or revitalization of local economies.
Place-based education also offers a response to the urgent need to ensure that all children have access to an excellent education and to the reality that resources are not keeping pace with the need. Given current economic circumstances, rural, remote, and other high-needs communities must look inward and bring all of their assets and strengths to bear on their local challenges.
The Rural Trust continues to provide support to schools and communities to increase their capacity to grow better together by designing and implementing place-based education. To further these goals, the Rural Trust also works to increase awareness of the efficacy of place-based education; to build and strengthen organizational relationships necessary to realize the goals and potential of place-based education; to develop tools and delivery mechanisms for training and supporting schools and communities to implement place-based education; and to expand place-based education into career and technical training, workforce preparedness, and entrepreneurial opportunities.
The importance of effective teachers in every classroom is perhaps the single most widespread point of consensus in the national school reform discourse.
At the Rural Trust, we believe that the most effective instructional leaders (teachers) are those who, among other things, have a command of their teaching discipline, including the deep content knowledge that enables intellectual flexibility around subject matter; a deep knowledge of how the discipline relates to other disciplines; and an assortment of teaching strategies that engage students with diverse learning backgrounds, styles and capacities in deep conceptual and applied learning. Effective teachers establish caring and developmentally supportive relationships with their students and families; understand, connect with and respect the history, culture, and place in which their students live; and leverage local assets and needs in support of the learning process and community growth. Effective building and district leaders understand and support teachers in these roles.
By any definition of quality, highly effective educators are difficult to recruit and retain in many rural schools and communities, particularly those places that are remote or serve high concentrations of children of color or poverty.
In order to address the many documented reasons for the difficulties in recruiting and retaining effective rural educators, the Rural Trust asserts the importance of prospecting and developing potential educators from among those who are native to or already living in the community.
The Rural Trust advocates for partnerships that develop and support highly effective teachers and leaders who are particularly disposed to and skilled at teaching, learning, and living in rural places. These partnerships include high-quality, standards- and place-based “grow your own” models. They also include teacher training and professional development programs infused with research- and place-based knowledge and professional development opportunities that support teachers to design and direct their own study (such as the Rural Trust Global Teacher Fellowship).
The Rural Trust works to develop and support highly effective leaders among parents, school boards and district offices, community-based organizations, and local governmental bodies — leaders who are willing and able to work across boundaries to ensure educational equity and excellence for every child.
Rural Capacity Building
The Rural Trust is committed to strengthening the capacity of small, isolated, and low-resourced rural schools and communities to get federal and other grants that, increasingly, are available only on a competitive basis. At least four challenges pose particular difficulties for rural schools: competition, local match requirements, scale, and evidence-based remedies.
Smaller, less-resourced schools and districts typically have smaller, less-specialized staffs that are inexperienced in writing major grants and lack access to technical assistance and collaborative supports, putting them at a competitive disadvantage.
Further, most rural communities cannot meet matching requirements because their fiscal resources are limited and they do not have access to private partners. The scale demands of many competitive grants (large numbers of program participants) are often prohibitive for rural schools and districts. The absence of authentically rural or rural-focused evidence-based program models and the limited number of community organizations also impact program development.
As a result, rural schools win relatively few competitive grants, which may ultimately exacerbate the equity issue many grants are intended to address.
To help address these issues, the Rural Trust provides and advocates for technical assistance for rural schools, districts, and communities to produce high-quality funding and partnership proposals and to build the capacity to implement them.
The Rural Trust also provides technical assistance in the place-based development or refinement of evidence-based innovations. It helps identify state, federal, and private funding opportunities and facilitates connections with high-capacity partners to build authentic, sustainable partnerships with communities. In addition, it works to evaluate the capacity-building and technical assistance model to inform the future investment strategies of the federal government and private philanthropies.
The Rural Trust remains committed to rural America and to a health future for its schools, communities, and children. We thank our many partners for the support that has made this work possible over nearly two decades and continues to give it life as we move forward in the 21st century.
If you would like to join this effort, you can make a contribution by clicking here or contact us by clicking here.
RPM thanks you and all our readers as well as the thousands of dedicated teachers, school leaders, families, and community partners who work every day on behalf of our nation's rural children and young people.
Read more from the September 2013 Rural Policy Matters.