October 23, 2019

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Best Practices for Identifying and Supporting High-Achieving Rural Students

This guest post was written by Jennifer Glynn, Ph.D. who is the Director of Research at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. 

 Almost one in five school children—some 9 million nationwide—live in rural areas. Many of these students have far fewer resources than their suburban counterparts and receive far less national attention than urban ones. At the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, we aim to change that, both by calling attention to the need to increase opportunities for rural students and by supporting programs that are leading the way in doing so. 

As highlighted in our new report, “Small Town, Big Talent,” rural students are both high achieving and underserved. They graduate from high school at rates above the national average, but are less likely than their peers elsewhere in the country to enroll in college immediately after graduation. This disconnect between K-12 and postsecondary achievement can disadvantage communities that often are struggling to attract and retain talent.

In our new report, we highlight promising practices and programs that can serve as models for expanding opportunities for academically talented students in rural America. To reach their full potential, academically talented students require advanced support, opportunities, and resources that far too many schools lack. Rural schools, with smaller enrollments and fewer resources, face additional challenges providing for their brightest students.

 Since 2012, the Cooke Foundation has supported educational enrichment in rural areas by awarding over $3.3 million in grants to outstanding organizations that support rural students in Alaska, Iowa, Indiana, Maine, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. In 2017, the Foundation formalized our strategy for rural program support by establishing the Rural Talent Initiative grant program. This report draws on the deep experience of six grantees and findings from the research community to offer 14 recommendations of best practices for identifying promising rural students, providing them with academic services, and meeting the social and emotional needs of promising rural students.

 James Madison University’s Valley Scholars Program, for example, has learned that it’s critical to not only create local enrichment opportunities but to also widen students’ vision of what’s possible. They expose scholars to a wide range of college and career options and help them build social capital that doesn’t accrue naturally in sparsely populated areas. “Our goal is to support Valley Scholars in becoming leaders in their communities.” Shaun Mooney, director of the Valley Scholars Program, told us. “We are intentional about creating opportunities for learning inside and outside of their communities to expose them to new ideas, experiences, and people.”

All the organizations interviewed for the report also stressed the importance of recognizing that no two communities are the same. “When you know one rural area, you [only] know one rural area,” said Tamra Stambaugh, director of Vanderbilt University’s Programs for Talented Youth. Some rural communities are adjacent to outer suburbs, while others are hundreds of miles away from the nearest town or city. Some have differentiated economies, while others are dependent upon a single industry, such as farming, fishing, mining, logging, or tourism. All of those factors impact the resources and opportunities available to students.

Just as there is no one-size-fits-all solution for addressing need in urban schools, organizations must take a varied approach to increasing services for rural school children. We hope this report will inspire national organizations, educators, and federal and state policymakers—and provide much-needed guidance on how to deepen their work in rural communities. Ultimately, the entire nation will benefit from developing its young rural talent, and it is our intent for this report to serve as a useful blueprint to do so.