How to Serve Rural Schools: Listen

Students gather in class at Owsley County Elementary School in Kentucky.

Students gather in class at Owsley County Elementary School in Kentucky.

When it comes to serving schools across rural America, it’s important to remember that no two rural communities are alike. From the remote fishing villages in Alaska, to the sugar maple towns of Vermont, to the American Indian reservations in Montana, America’s rural communities are incredibly diverse. Nationwide, rural America contains over 70 percent of our landmass, one-third of our schools, and 59 million Americans, according to the 2010 Census. In addition to the need for the same educational opportunities as urban and suburban students, we recognize the unique challenges faced by many, if not most rural students: high rates of childhood poverty, limited health care, fewer career opportunities, isolation from basic services, as well as schools that don’t have the necessary transportation, technology, teachers, courses, and resources to provide students with a truly 21st century education they deserve.

Understanding the diversity of rural schools across our country was made clear in a conversation earlier this month between Secretary King and leaders of rural education advocacy organizations about the struggles rural schools face. As part of our commitment to ensuring equity and excellence for every student in the implementation of this new law, the Department of Education (ED) is committed to understanding how best to meet the needs of rural stakeholders. We are focused on making sure that the voice of rural education is heard and taken into account as we develop policies, priorities, and program initiatives under The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and throughout the Department.

This initial dialogue will continue over the next few months with ED hosting listening sessions (virtually and in-person) in rural locations across the country to hear the concerns of those in our rural areas. The feedback received in these sessions will inform us as we conduct a rurally-focused review of the Department, as required under Title V of ESSA. Our review will consider how the Department currently solicits and receives input, and addresses the needs of rural schools in our programs, policies, and organizational structure. We will identify actions ED can take to increase participation of rural schools in our policy-making efforts, and better serve rural schools in the future. The listening sessions will help ensure that our review includes specific recommendations from actual rural voices: the people who know the needs of rural schools better than anyone else.

It’s important to remember that no two rural communities are alike.

It’s important to remember that no two rural communities are alike.

We recognize that certain obstacles can stop rural districts from fully utilizing federal resources, or applying for grants that can help students succeed. Rural communities face diverse and unique challenges, and are not always well-served by traditional education systems and processes. We heard that the lack of a common definition of “rural” contributes to the confusion about which communities and school districts are eligible for federal funds available across multiple agencies. Rural schools often lack dedicated staff to simply apply for grants, even those that contain specific rural priorities. We acknowledge that simplifying applications and collaborating with other federal agencies to streamline the process for schools is critical to increasing participation and buy-in from our rural communities.

We greatly appreciate the efforts of rural advocates in Washington, DC and across the country who have already met and spoken with us about these issues. We look forward to continuing the conversation, and welcome any and all feedback.

If you are interested in sharing input or hearing more about our efforts to engage rural communities, please feel free to contact us at:

Lucy Johnson is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.


  1. I am very interested in helping and participating in these conversations and working with teachers and students.

  2. I am thrilled to see the Department of Education acknowledging the diversity present among our rural districts in the United States. As a teacher in the largest geographic district in New York I have seen first hand the impact that being in a remote, isolated (over 1.5 hours to a ‘small city’), rural district has on students. For so long the focus has rightfully been on cities schools who also have their struggles. While there are some issues that overlay all districts, many are specific to context that includes location.

    This is fabulous. I applaud the efforts of the Department of Education in this area and look forward to what will come! I would love to be involved in anyway that could facilitate your work!

  3. YES! I am very interested in being a part of this work. I have been in a very small rural district in Connecticut for 9 years – only 700 students K-12. Please do reach out as I would love to be actively involved.

  4. Here in the UK rural schools lack qualified teachers, and even class assistants are hard to find. The result is that children often have a literacy problem, as so many are not given enough time for individual l supervised reading.

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