Migrant Education Program students at a summer camp in Macon County led by Conexión Américas

This week Conexión Américas kicked off summer camps across the state for children in our Migrant Education Program.  My first encounter with rural Tennessee came last summer when I taught policy debate at our camps in the areas surrounding Johnson City and Cookeville. This experience gave me a deeper appreciation for the challenges and opportunities that rural communities face – most notably for English Learners.

For many members of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition (an initiative of Conexión Américas), however, the rural experience is part of their daily lives. Our members living, working, and advocating for education equity in rural Tennessee provide many lessons for all of us. Inspired by their feedback, we zeroed in on the ways in which geography plays a role in a student’s academic outcomes. In The Lay of the Land: A Closer Look at Rural Schools in Tennessee, we found that when it comes to education, rural matters. Rural matters for English Learner instruction and supports, for ensuring access to early postsecondary opportunities (EPSO) in high school, and for recruiting and supporting strong educators.

Why should Tennesseans care about rural schools? About one in three Tennessee students attends a rural school, making up nearly 300,000 students. Rural schools are spread throughout Tennessee’s 95 counties in areas with varied levels of poverty and economic opportunity. On average, as President Gloria Sweet Love of the TN-NAACP writes in a recent op-ed, rural schools serve smaller numbers of students, yet these smaller school sizes can create distinct challenges for schools in their efforts to obtain adequate resources or for serving specific student groups.

Rural Matters For English Learners

Tennessee’s rural demographic shifts increase the need for rural school districts to adequately serve English Learner and migrant students. Even as these communities experience dire economic circumstances, they provide gainful employment to migrant families and other non-English-language speakers. Often, these population shifts bring new English Learners to rural schools, but their numbers remain small. As a result, they do not bring additional state funding or resources to the schools, and districts struggle to provide social-emotional supports or translated information for parents.

Rural Matters For Early Postsecondary Opportunities

Access to EPSOs like Advanced Placement (AP) or dual enrollment courses is complicated, with many factors playing into adding new courses. Experienced and trained instructors must be hired, and often must receive additional certification. If schools are short-staffed, an EPSO addition may mean an instructor has to teach both regular content and EPSO coursework. This is particularly true with AP courses, which require fees and unique teacher training. Dual enrollment courses are also difficult to offer if a postsecondary institution is far from the school’s community.

Rural Matters For Great Educators

Finally, rural matters when it comes to recruiting and supporting strong educators. In our analysis, we find that rural schools often face specific barriers to recruiting and supporting great educators to fill needed staff positions. Important factors, such as pay or geographic isolation, serve to disadvantage rural schools in staffing, and also school climate and adequate school capacity in best serving students.

Paving the Road to Equity in Rural Tennessee

Countless rural schools in Tennessee are defying the odds, and many of these school districts provide hope and pathways for students, countering the narrative of limited prosperity and opportunity in their communities. But there is still work to do, and the road between rural, suburban, and urban schooling is not yet fully paved. Every data point in our Lay of the Land report represents actual students and teachers with their own stories, struggles, and dreams. Tennessee has demonstrated the collective will and ability to take on ambitious reforms that have redefined who we are as a state. We must do so again on behalf of the rural students across Tennessee.

How to Get Involved

  1. Join our Rural Education Webinar Series. The next one is scheduled for July 16, 2019, 12-1 p.m. CST where we will examine opportunities and realities for English Learner instruction in Tennessee. Next, on July 29, 12-1 p.m. CST, we will unpack the way Tennessee’s funding formula operates and where it falls short in funding many rural schools equitably.
  2. Sign-up to attend a Coalition summer regional meeting.We are headed to Nashville (July 10), Knoxville (July 17), Chattanooga (July 18) and Memphis (July 30) where we will give an overview of rural education report and  provide important updates on new education policies in Tennessee.

(SCORE partners with the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition. One of SCORE’s strategic goals is all students have equitable opportunities for success.)

Alexza Barajas Clark, Ph.D. is the associate director of policy and advocacy at Conexión Américas.