This was first published on Bellwether Education Partners’ Ahead of the Heard blog as a four-part guest series on rural education featuring Dr. Jared Bigham.
Most people’s perception of what constitutes “rural” is based largely on their own geographic location and experiences. If asked what rural education looks like, you’ll often get answers ranging from “Hoosiers” to “Friday Night Lights” to “Remember the Titans”. These are geography- or popular culture-oriented responses, but perceptions of place tend to frame perceptions of people and, more specifically, stereotypes of people.
Geographic stereotypes do (sometimes unfairly) impact much of our thinking. This certainly holds true for many people’s perceived stereotypical “rural student.” By and large in my experience, people tend to think of rural students as low-income, white kids. So it may come as a surprise to learn that approximately one quarter of rural students are students of color. As of 2017, the rural population breakdown for people of color is 9% Hispanic, 8% Black, 2% American Indian, and 2% identifying as non-white Other. And in the South, 80% of rural African Americans in the U.S. live in the Black Belt, which comprises 623 counties across 11 Southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
Rural students from low-income backgrounds face myriad challenges. However, imagine an additional layer of stigmas, stereotypes, and obstacles associated with being a rural student of color. Add to that stereotypes that rural students are somehow inherently behind academically due to the lower-than-average number of residents with postsecondary degrees.
Despite these pervading stereotypes of rural students, there are amazing examples of collaborative efforts between schools, industry, and postsecondary institutions that are leveraging advances in technology to support rural students of color in overcoming barriers to success in the workforce after high school.
Take, for example, Charles Henderson High School in Troy, Alabama (population just under 20,000), where a partnership was created with Lockheed Martin for students to begin a pathway that leads to a career after graduation. The majority of the population at Charles Henderson are students of color, with more than half the student body qualifying for free and reduced-price meals. Leveraging technology through TRANSFR VR, a company that specializes in virtual reality training and career exploration, and the partnership with Lockheed Martin, students receive invaluable instruction that would be a challenge under the logistical and financial constraints of a typical high school schedule. Often, it’s a heavy lift for rural school districts to employ an instructor that specializes in industrial careers, and it’s often impossible to afford the commercial equipment needed to teach students. However, by using virtual reality technology and innovative partnerships, Charles Henderson students have access to instruction that would otherwise be out of reach.
To me, the magic in this collaboration are the high expectations set for all of these students. There is no defaulting to stereotypes; there is no acquiescing to statistics; there is no settling for an employment ceiling, which is just a job. Adam Carson, business operations manager at Lockheed Martin emphasizes that this isn’t just about giving students a job. It’s about giving students access to a career, which is the employment floor and place to begin to professionally rise. “It’s a good investment because it meets the needs of the community, and it meets the needs of Lockheed Martin,” according to Carson.
Another important piece of the Troy-based partnership strategy: the innovation taking place at this school isn’t just for innovation’s sake, and it isn’t a tokenizing campaign to help “poor, helpless Black and Hispanic students.” There’s nothing more degrading we can do in our efforts to support rural students of color than to create benevolent, paternalistic partnerships to “save” them. It’s an affront to students’ dignity, and it feeds into those layered stereotypes. High expectations and working outside the norm of traditional K-12 education models are the most effective ways to overcome the traditional stereotypes of the rural student — stereotypes which in most cases don’t even include students of color.
Dr. Gerri Maxwell, chair of Educational Leadership at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, focuses her work on supporting students of color in rural schools. Maxwell has conducted a great deal of research on the application of systemic strategies in two areas: 1) the benefits of after-school programs for rural students of color with low-income backgrounds, and 2) creating capacity for social justice leadership in rural K-12 schools.
Maxwell said that students of color in rural communities face challenges that mirror those that students of color in urban areas face. The catch? Rural students experience an additional challenge of geographic isolation. This isolation hampers access to wraparound supports, which is one of the reasons Maxwell has spent a good portion of her career facilitating grant resources to rural communities and researching impact. “You have to be a forceful change agent sometimes to push for support that has been lacking for many of these students,” she said.
Until students of color are more readily seen as part of the rural narrative, we’re missing a huge opportunity to understand and truly support all rural students.
Dr. Jared Bigham is a fourth-generation rural educator. He serves as senior advisor on Workforce & Rural Initiatives for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, is board chair of the Tennessee Rural Education Association, and is active in the National Rural Education Association. He is the proud husband to an assistant principal and father of four children.