Defining 'Rural' on the Road to Rural Schools
BY ALLEN C. PRATT/School Administrator, October 2018

In January 2017, a few months after being hired as executive director of the National Rural Education Association, I began making connections with our members and connecting with potential members. I did not realize at the outset that my travel adventures would take me to 48 states with in-depth visits in a dozen states, stretching from Montana to Alabama.

Along the way, I discovered that how one defines “rural” differs from one region or state to the next and what rural school leaders need foremost also differs markedly depending on the school district’s geography.

The pure definition of what it means to be a rural school is as different as the language dialects across these regions. Rural remote locations in east Tennessee look vastly different from remote communities in Montana. Rural school districts in Tennessee may consist of 1,500 students up to 3,500 students. I made stops in rural counties with K-8 schools enrolling as few as eight students and high schools with 350 students. Local shopping for the basics sat an hour or more away from some school communities.

A School Visit
Never more pronounced was the varying definition of rural schooling than during my visit to a one-room schoolhouse in Gold Creek, Mont. The town of Gold Creek sits between Missoula and the state capital of Helena. Gold Creek’s K-8 school served eight students at the time, with one teacher and one teaching assistant. I was accompanied by the late Jules Waber, then the superintendent in Powell County, Mont. Waber’s jurisdiction covered several schools scattered across the expansive county. I rode along snow-covered roads, stopping long enough for Waber to share stories of the region and telling me he has seen snow on July 4 in the higher elevations in years past.

I arrived at the school in Gold Creek with a basic understanding of how the school would operate and the students would address learning in our technology-obsessed world. When we walked in, the students were busy working in groups, older students helping the younger students. Students used iPads and desktop computers to work jointly on projects. The teacher worked with younger students to finish the morning lesson on counting money.

Once the teacher introduced me, the students wanted to know about my work and more importantly about Tennessee, where I live and work in school administration at the county and state levels. The students asked me to describe the local elementary school in the town I live in. I told them it was a smaller school with around 350 K-6 students. They laughed when I said smaller school. The students wondered if the school used computers and could connect on Skype. I remember thinking this school is more advanced than many back home, but is more remote than any school in Tennessee.

One young girl asked me to talk about the lunch room at the school near my home. Students at Gold Creek do not have a cafeteria so each student brings his or her lunch. At times, a local family will feed the students in Gold Creek, whose school operates Mondays through Thursdays. The students start the school day around 7:15 a.m. and head home by car around 4:15 p.m. 

An Expansive Definition
Rural schooling should not be defined by zip codes or researchers’ terms. It is a matter of perspective and understanding. It is defined by how long it takes people to drive to a store or a landmark on the map.

Rural education can be cutting-edge — from one-room schoolhouses to larger self-defined rural schools. Rural is a true sense of feeling, community and understanding.

ALLEN PRATT is executive director of the National Rural Education Association at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Twitter: @NREA1