November 19, 2020
“Since the 2016 presidential campaign there has been a spotlight on rural America. It has brought attention to the lives and challenges of rural America, but also brought about stereotypes that all of rural America is the same.”
– Darris Means, Associate Professor, University of Pttsburgh School of Education
The increased attention to rural America since the 2016 presidential election, whether influenced by the impact of globalization on manufacturing jobs or the rise of the nation’s opioid crises, often came with a common approach, and that approach was to view rural America as a monolith. Though the issues illustrated are significant, the stereotype of rural America could not be further from the truth, as rural America hosts diverse communities and is full of contributions from Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian people and other people of color. Additionally, these communities are often left out of state and federal policy frameworks. As policymakers and stakeholders create solutions for helping school districts make it through the current crises, rural school districts and communities— especially rural communities of color— must be included in the equation. To discuss how policymakers and stakeholders can serve rural students of color, The Hunt Institute sat down with Dr. Darris Means of the University of Pittsburgh, Elaine Townsend Utin of LatinxEd, Superintendent Jhone Ebert of Nevada, and Superintendent Chris Reykdal of Washington to talk about how states and localities can align in these efforts.
“[People of color] are not a monolith, our communities have so much diversity represented and when you treat us like a monolith you are missing out on the richness of what we have to offer.”
– Elaine Townsend Utin, Co-Executive Director and Co-Founder, Latinx-Ed
The first portion of the conversation focused on the national landscape regarding rural students of color. Speaking on the subject was Dr. Darris Means, who has done considerable research on this topic. In his remarks, Dr. Means noted that one in four rural youth are youth of color, and one in seven Black students attend rural schools. Additionally, Dr. Means emphasizes the need to focus on how school closure policies can have a devastating impact on rural schools. Rural communities often rely on schools to provide a multitude of supports to students, including food services, transportation, and internet and technology access. With the onset of the pandemic, many students were left without these crucial services while schools and communities scrambled to fill the gap.
Personal experience was also a critical point of the discussion, as Elaine Townsend Utin of LatinxEd discussed her experience as a student of color in rural education. Utin, when discussing her experience, emphasized how there were many gaps between her identity and how school was conducted. By gaps, she referred to how she was unable to learn about her identity through her teachers and school, also adding how schools often marginalize identities and experiences. Utin’s experiences in rural education play a significant role in the work she does today, as a goal of LatinxEd is to connect students with teachers and mentors who look like them and have experiences similar to theirs.
“While we are challenged by technology and distance it’s important to note that there is a growing body of research that we have to be more intentional about how we talk about race with students that face intersectionalities.”
– Chris Reykal, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Washington
Speaking from state leadership perspectives on this subject were Superintendent Jhone Ebert of Nevada and Superintendent Chris Reykdal of Washington. Ebert, when providing her remarks, discussed how rural school districts in Nevada are often painted with a broad brush. Ebert also discussed the diversity seen in Nevada’s rural school districts, noting how these districts host students who are members among the state’s four Tribal Nations and 27 Tribes included within those Nations. Finally, Ebert discussed efforts being done at the state level to ensure that students throughout the state can be connected during the pandemic, noting how 99 percent of students in the state have a device and internet connection to learn from a distance. This was a direct result of the state’s rapid response to ensure that students have internet and technology access. Superintendent Reykdal talked about the work being done in Washington, discussing the need to deliver consistent messaging around the challenges of remote learning, be more intentional about having conversations around race and supporting students of color, and develop curricula and pedagogy that can resonate with students.
“While our Native American students make up just 1% of our student population statewide, these students are in 572 of our schools across the state. We have to be intentional and take action to address disparities.”
– Jhone Ebert, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Nevada
Next, the floor opened for Q&A, and Dr. Means opened this portion of the discussion by talking about supporting rural Black students, particularly in the face of the racial reckoning our country is currently working through. Dr. Means stressed the need for all to participate in the solutions, create spaces in schools that celebrate Black joy and Black success, and address the roots of Anti-Black racism by examining our circles of influence. The conversation then turned to how state leadership in Nevada and Washington are recruiting and retaining teachers of color in rural schools and are supporting highly mobile students. Speaking about teacher recruitment and retention was Superintendent Reykdal, who spoke about the need to put Native youth at the center of policy development and resource allocation, develop educator support programs for rural teachers of color, and utilize technology to connect communities. Speaking about supporting highly mobile students was Superintendent Ebert, who talked about the development of a consortium to create online learning tools to support highly-mobile students and families.
Speaking on using data to help rural students was Elaine Townsend Utin, who discussed how the size of the Latinx population in North Carolina makes meeting the needs of underrepresented communities an absolute necessity. Additionally, Utin stressed how data can be used in multiple ways: a truth-telling tool, something to hide behind, or a tool to help policymakers and stakeholders identify new investments to make to support rural students of color.
The discussion concluded with a question for all panelists on how to leverage the pandemic as an opportunity. Superintendent Reykdal has been focusing on how to think more about deep learning rather than the absorption of content, as well as creating experiences so that students can see themselves in their teaching and learning experiences. Utin discussed the need to leverage the pandemic to question the nature of transactional relationships and introduce a more personal approach to those relationships. Dr. Means stated the need to think about how to collaborate with rural youth of color in solving pressing issues, while Superintendent Ebert is focused on meeting students where they are at and finding solutions to work with them from there.
As the new year approaches, many transitions are on the horizon in the American political landscape, including the inauguration of a new presidential administration. With this transition will likely come a different approach to education policy, one calling for increases in Title I funding and a restoration of civil rights protections. As the federal government and state governments develop their education policy frameworks, they must consider the needs of rural communities, and those frameworks must be created in such a way that they accurately reflect the landscape, issues, diversity, and contributions seen in rural America.