Speaking to a roomful of school district leaders, Mara Casey Tieken, author of Why Rural Matters, delivered a message of urgent importance at the Federal Relations Luncheon at the AASA national conference on Thursday. Her principal point: The future of rural America depends upon its schools.
Tieken, an associate professor at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, preached to the choir. “Rural schools keep rural communities on the map, but, rural schools are also threatened right now,” she said. “But I know you know this better than anyone else.”
The most significant threats to rural schools include unfunded mandates, declining enrollments, pressure to close schools and the challenge of implementing turnaround models, “which might as well be called ‘turnaway models,’” Tieken said.
Changing demographics and growing inequality are often overlooked or perhaps unrecognized challenges in rural America, Tieken said. To bust the myth that rural America is white America, she shared facts and figures of the growing racial and ethnic diversity. People of color make up 20 percent of the rural population – that’s 10.3 million people.
But most surprising, rural diversity is expanding just as quickly as in urban diversity. In rural communities, increased diversity has brought challenges and victories. A school district in rural Arkansas has achieved integration of a diverse population. But in another district that is deeply segregated, working toward integration remains a struggle.
“Rural communities of color are going to keep rural America growing and thriving,” said Tieken. “But as we grow, we need to address current inequities and prevent new ones from rising.”
Educational leaders have a critical role to play in ensuring a brighter future for rural America, and that includes leading with an equity lens, according to Tieken. “There is no ‘ours’ or ‘theirs’ in the fight for educational equity,” Tieken said in closing.
The Federal Relations Luncheon was sponsored by AXA.
(Deanna Atkins is digital content manager at AASA.)