As Enrollment in Rural Schools Surges, So Do Diversity and Poverty

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When I drive through rural Georgia I see for myself how easy it is to overlook the abandoned school buildings hidden beneath the vines creeping up the weathered bricks, obscured by weeds gathering in the playgrounds where school children once congregated.

No. The children haven’t fled. So many rural systems have shut down small community schools in an effort to save money and now bus children to larger schools. The reality is that enrollment in rural schools is growing faster than in any other geographic area.

With nearly 575,000 students attending rural schools here in Georgia, our state has the third largest rural student enrollment in the nation, exceeded only by Texas and North Carolina. This surge in matriculation has given rise to disparities. Poverty and mobility rates in Georgia—and the percentage of minority students—are among the highest in the United States.

As the evidence mounts that rural education is becoming a bigger and even more complex part of our national educational landscape, it’s becoming impossible to ignore in the quest to improve achievement and narrow achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged groups. That is according to Why Rural Matters 2011-12, the latest national biennial report released this month by the Rural School and Community Trust.

The sixth installment in this series, this 105-page report groups 25 statistical indicators into five gauges to take the measure of rural education in each of the 50 states. The five gauges are combined to produce a rural education priority gauge. The higher the priority ranking, the more important and challenging rural education is in a state’s overall education system. Georgia has a priority ranking of 9 among the 13 highest-priority states.

Here’s what the numbers in the report tell us:

  • 52 percent of the students attending schools in a rural district in Georgia live in poverty—compared to 40 percent at the national level.
  • More than 1 in 3 students in rural Georgia is a child of color. The rate of growth in rural Georgia’s Hispanic student population is among the highest in the nation.
  • Nearly 1 in 6 has changed residences in the past 12 months.
  • Rural NAEP scores in Georgia are near the bottom nationally, and just over 6 in 10 rural students graduate from high school. Only Louisiana’s rate is lower.

It is imperative for all of us—child advocates, parents, community members, and policymakers—to turn our attention to rural education and its implications for our state.