Back to School: Understanding the Landscape of Rural Dropout Recovery

By Clarence Okoh

With the new school-year underway, many districts are grappling with how to prevent an estimated 800,000 students from exiting school this year before earning a high school degree. While this issue affects many communities, it presents a unique set of challenges for America’s rural schools. Despite the scope of this crisis, federal, state, and local policymakers can take advantage of effective strategies to improve student graduation rates and strengthen rural schools.

The latest data from the US Department of Education (DOE) reports that the average freshman graduation rate for rural high school students was 80.6 percent, leaving nearly one of five rural youth without a high school degree. Consistent with urban trends, these numbers reflect a disproportionate impact on rural youth of color. A 2010 report from the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) indicates that the graduation rates for rural youth of color were 61 percent for Hispanic youth, 54 percent for African-American youth and 51 percent for Indian/Alaska Natives youth.

How did we arrive at this crisis? In rural communities, as elsewhere, context matters. According to the US Department of Agriculture, one-fifth of rural communities in 2013 had child poverty rates over 33 percent, which represented a 200 percent increase since 1999. Rural youth not only confront high levels of concentrated poverty, but many also attend woefully underperforming schools. AEE reports that 20 percent of the nation’s 2,000 poorest performing high schools are located in rural areas. In addition, rural young adults between ages 18 and 24 have the lowest rate of post-secondary program enrollment at 29.6 percent compared to their urban counterparts at 47.5 percent, according to DOE data.

Rural schools also confront a host of issues specific to rural social environments. The National Dropout Prevention Center identifies many of these challenges, including: rural school funding disparities and diminishing revenues; high transportation costs; challenges recruiting and retaining qualified teachers, administration and staff; and fewer course offerings. Further, rural school districts are challenged in their ability to address the educational needs of English language learners and students with special education needs due to their limited staff and facility capacity.

Despite this context, a series of opportunities in crafting public policy and local interventions can both reconnect rural out-of-school youth and support the overall well-being of rural schools, including:

  • Dropout Recovery and Prevention Strategies. CLASP has identified the following elements as some of the most critical to designing strong dropout recovery and prevention systems: early warning systems; multiple pathways that blend education training, and postsecondary education support; wraparound supports; community collaborations; and, cross-systems supports.
  • Revenue for Rural Schools. Low-income, rural communities, encounter many issues with their school budgets. At the federal level, many rural, low-income school districts face funding disparities due to their size. As highlighted by the AEE, existing formulas in Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) disproportionately underfund small, rural, high-poverty school districts. Federal policymakers have the opportunity to address these disparities in the reauthorization of the ESEA. At the state and local levels, ongoing budget- cuts further undermine the financial resources available to rural schools. Policymakers at those levels should act to provide stable and sufficient revenue that supports rural schools in general and dropout prevention and recovery systems specifically.  
  • Staff Recruitment and Retention: Geographic isolation, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for professional development and advancement are often cited as among the leading challenges in recruiting and retaining talented staff in rural schools. To address these issues many rural communities have invested in strategies such as “grow your own,”  which identifies academically gifted high-school and college students in their communities and provides college scholarships and student loan support in exchange for a commitment to work in the district.
  • Promoting Partnerships and Leveraging Local Resources. Another strategy is to share facilities, staff, and administrative costs with community partners such as educational service agencies, local universities, nonprofit organizations, social service agencies, and businesses among others, which can offer rural schools cost-saving opportunities while simultaneously strengthening community involvement. In addition, educational strategies like place-based learning, service-learning, and distance-learning thrive in rural contexts and can be utilized to further promote student success.

Shifting economic realities necessitate renewed focus on America’s rural youth to equip them with the resources and skills to achieve positive life outcomes. A combination of strong policymaking and innovative local programming, offers a robust framework that better serves rural youth and in doing so, allows rural America to thrive in the 21st century.