Closing the Divide: Cause for Optimism

We Need to Pay Attention to Rural Students, Rural Schools, and Rural Communities

The problems we see in rural education have taken years to develop. What's more, because rural districts are small, their problems tend to go unnoticed, but, collectively, these problems affect millions: One half of the school districts, one third of the schools, and one fifth of the students in the United States are located in rural areas (Lavalley, 2018). If we continue to ignore rural America, we are ignoring a quarter of the population, putting the entire nation at risk. This neglect will harm all of us who call America home, not just our rural communities and residents.

Reviving rural America is an enormous but doable task that must be done one community at a time. The rebirth of rural America will require 21 st-century jobs and a skilled workforce. All of this depends on a pipeline filled with college- and career-ready youth.

Government and business leaders are recognizing the correlation between workforce needs and postsecondary attainment. Like Vermont, almost every state has set postsecondary and workforce readiness goals to strengthen their economies. California, for example, plans to help an additional 1.5 million residents attain college degrees by 2030.

Matt Dunne of the Center on Rural Innovation, a nonprofit that is building a network of rural innovation hubs across America to help revive struggling small towns, touts the advantages that rural communities offer: Affordable real estate, hardworking people, and increasingly prevalent high-speed internet access (Anarde & Dunne, 2019). In addition to an educational pipeline that can produce the next college- and career-ready generation, Dunne and others look to create strong digital economies that will allow small towns to thrive.

Beacons of hope can be found in rural communities throughout America. One such town, Crown Point, sits on the western shores of Lake Champlain in New York State. Crown Point Central School is led by ordinary people who are doing extraordinary things, leaders whose approach is based on high expectations, trust, and respect. These leaders believe that their formula can transform other struggling rural schools.

Instead of following the current system, which concentrates resources in too few places and leaves talent on the sidelines, we should learn from small towns engaging in regional economic development strategies that will ensure the promise of the modern era is shared more evenly across the country. As well see in the next chapter, Crown Point is doing just that—and their experience is a guide for other places to follow.

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