What Urban Ed Reformers Can Learn from Rural School Communities

When I first started working in ed reform a decade ago, everyone around me was focused on the needs of low-income students in urban communities. And understandably so. Living in coastal California, in a city (Oakland) that is both the 3rd most diverse in America and also has such a stark divide in the achievement levels of the public school my children attend in the hills and many other schools a few miles away in the city's flatlands, I totally buy into and believe urgently in the need to improve our failing urban schools.  

At the same time, I have been spending more time as of late in rural communities, where the needs are similarly urgent and the children also in need of high-quality school options.  These experiences have made me think a lot about our assumptions of where we should focus our efforts around changing school culture and increasing innovative instructional practices, and what we can do to most move the needle of achievement for all low-income students, regardless of where they live.

 Ceiba College Preparatory Academy in Watsonville, CA

Ceiba College Preparatory Academy in Watsonville, CA

Our team is fortunate to be working with a couple of great CA charter schools working in our state’s farming communities this fall. Like their urban counterparts, they are battling the factors of poverty, institutional discrimination, bureaucratic systems that are slow to change, and a general environment that lacks any sense of urgency around improving schools and achievement. They also have the added challenge of isolation from other innovative schools and school systems, a struggle to attract the best talent to live in rural environments, and a less robust support structure for the kinds of services their students and teachers most need. 

However, it would be a mistake to think that these schools are necessarily limited in their ability to thrive and impact student achievement for their local communities. Their leaders are often scrappy and motivated, taking long drives or airplane drives to visit other successful schools and learn about their effective practices. Rural communities’ small size and relative isolation also means they are often places where people look out for one another and work together to ensure everyone succeeds. I have seen some of the most innovative, creative, rigorous things happening at these schools we have been to in the past month and as such, it has led me to be bullish on the fate of rural schools.

 Grimmway Academy's Edible Schoolyard, Arvin CA

Grimmway Academy's Edible Schoolyard, Arvin CA

What can those of us in urban locations learn from our rural friends? I think we can learn to maximize our resources, call on others for help as much as we can, work to build thriving school communities that support and nurture one another, and not take for granted the advantages we have living in such proximity to so many other great innovators and resources. And maybe we can remind ourselves to be more generous, thinking of not just the needs of urban students when we take up the cause of education reform, but ALL students in need, regardless of where they live.