Rural and Small Schools Are The Unsung Heroes of Innovation, And It’s Time We Learn From Them


While the challenges of rural schools have been discussed at length, they also have unique opportunities for innovation. Not only do rural schools act as centers for learning, but they serve their small towns as community hubs as well. Accordingly, rural schools are often better positioned to create opportunities for family engagement than their suburban and urban counterparts. This environment, coupled with the advantages of less bureaucracy and red tape than larger districts, has allowed rural schools to engage in some truly exciting, innovative work for students among recent years.

In states like Colorado, New Mexico, and Idaho, small districts are saving costs and attracting new teachers by shifting to a four-day school week. A high school in rural Pennsylvania is integrating service learning into its agriculture and STEM classes by growing produce for a local food bank. In Kentucky, a rural early college academy partnered with an engineering company to launch a student project into space. And these are just a few examples: America’s rural schools are filled with even more creative solutions waiting to grab headlines.  

For those who have yet to give rural education much consideration, successes like these offer compelling insights on how rural schools’ tight-knit, community-based approach could be replicated across contexts. In fact, the innovative work taking place in rural education may even offer an exciting new paradigm for what reform could look like.

Rural schools are an essential part of community pride, and district leaders from across the geographic spectrum could learn from their example. Innovative practices like place-based and service-based learning have been happening in rural schools for years now, and have shown great successes in driving community engagement. For urban and suburban school leaders, there’s no reason such strategies couldn’t be emulated or replicated at scale when appropriate. Centering the schooling process upon the communities of students and their families has, after all, always been a calling card of education reform, and it’s one that rural schools have had particular success with. In a sense, this approach almost predisposes rural and small districts to taking innovative approaches in educating children. 

There is good news for those who have questioned how public education systems can be more nimble in meeting the unique needs of students and families. Growing evidence shows how rural school districts could offer an exciting proof of concept: as pilot districts for potential innovations and reforms, designed with the needs of communities in mind but “tweakable” and scalable across contexts.   

Rural districts are already seeing tremendous successes with this. Online adaptive learning, for example, had already been taking hold in rural Idaho school districts well before the pandemic. Partnering with Khan Academy, rural schools there have been able to serve over 12,000 students since 2012 through a mixture of both in-person and virtual instruction called “blended learning.” Now, with blended learning models likely to become a more permanent fixture in schools thanks to the pandemic, district leaders across the geographic spectrum can look to innovative partnerships like this for a foundation to build from. 

Similarly, rural districts are fertile ground for “grow your own” educator programs, designed to help solve teacher shortages by identifying and training future teachers before they flock to larger cities. While teacher shortages are not as prevalent in urban areas, rural “grow your own” efforts offer a blueprint for districts experiencing more nuanced needs in teacher recruitment, like diversifying their workforce or recruiting educators with hard-to-find certifications. In most cities, disparities between educator and student diversity remain stagnant, and recruitment programs in rural districts may offer a blueprint for urban schools seeking to diversify. 
With real, meaningful collaboration, rural schools can provide leaders, reformers, and innovators with opportunities to rethink education with the unique needs of families at the forefront. In spite of their challenges, rural schools and communities are far from over. They’re just beginning.

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