Rich Hill: The Rural Poverty-Schools Resource Mismatch

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Thomas Brewster is the superintendent for Pulaski County Public Schools in Pulaski County, Virginia. Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, contributed to this post.

From 1960s “urban renewal” to 1980s crack dens and, most recently, the demolition of much of Detroit after it lost two-thirds of its residents, the scope of inner-city American poverty is clear. But we do not yet fully grasp the challenges facing today’s rural communities – what it’s like to live in small towns, and their residents’ difficulty with finding stable, sustaining employment. As part of its series of articles marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, The New York Times offered an intimate peek into the combination of rampant unemployment, hunger, drug and alcohol addiction, high incarceration rates, and lack of educational opportunities that plagues places of concentrated rural poverty like McDowell County, West Virginia.

A still from 'Rich Hill'

A still from the documentary Rich Hill. Harley, 15, lives with his grandma and eight other members of his extended family, because his mom is in prison. (Photo courtesy of Rich Hill Film)

The Sundance award-winning documentary Rich Hill, which just opened in theaters across the country, provides a perhaps more nuanced look. Tracking a year in the lives of three youth in a small Missouri town, the film illuminates the challenges that rural poverty, in particular, pose to children’s odds of school success. Only one of the three boys lives with two parents, neither of whom is regularly employed. Appachey lives with a single mother who has been working minimum-wage jobs since having her first child as a teenager, and Harley lives with his grandmother, who is standing in while his mother is in prison. Healthy food is scarce, two of the boys smoke cigarettes constantly, and only one of the three homes offers a quiet space conducive to studying. All three teens live in circumstances that threaten their mental and emotional well-being, and their school is ill-equipped to address these myriad challenges.

Rich Hill trailer.
My county of residence, Tazewell County, borders McDowell, and, as superintendent, I see these challenges every day. Our young people in southwestern Virginia face a larger number of challenges than their peers in other parts of the state. Children living in poverty suffer higher rates of child abuse and neglect, and they are disproportionately being raised in single-parent households or by grandparents and exposed to drug or alcohol use.

These and other challenges make it extremely hard for my kids to transition successfully into adulthood. Yet our policymakers focus mostly on increasing the rigor of the curriculum. Like many of my colleagues, I fully support increased accountability and high expectations, but I worry that they cannot succeed in the absence of comprehensive supports for our students and their families. We have never fully embraced such supports, however, and, support positions within the school district are often the first items cut during an economic downturn.

Several years ago, I toured a Communities in Schools (CIS) site in Richmond, Virginia. CIS identifies students in low performing schools and surrounds them with coordinated community support services such as counselors, mentors, food banks and health care, so they can be successful in the classroom and reach the ultimate goal of graduation. Throughout my tour, I was amazed at the amount of support given to students, and the unique partnerships that were developed. As a result of my visit, we worked to bring the CIS model to southwest Virginia. Just one year after opening a CIS site in a high-poverty Bristol (VA) City elementary school, principals began to see improved attendance, grades and overall academic achievement. And as a result of building the capacity of adults in the building, they witnessed closer one-on-one relationships developing between those adults and families they served.

Unfortunately, most high-poverty rural school districts lack access to CIS, and to the resources needed to connect students with support services. Indeed, as a white paper produced for a Capitol Hill screening of Rich Hill documents, there is a fundamental mismatch between students’ needs and the resources available to my colleagues in thousands of small districts across the country to address them. Local property-tax-based funding mechanisms magnify disadvantages into which a growing number of students are born. And many states, like mine, compound this disparity with regressive state funding formulas, such that, even if residents in my district were willing to be taxed at a higher rate, we could not compete with the resources in high-wealth districts like Fairfax County. Moreover, rural districts that depend on the state for a majority of their funding have been devastated by cuts in recent years, which further burden local governments. School districts are forced to significantly reduce school staffing – we have fewer administrative and support services – and increase class sizes.

It is heartening to see our policy leaders begin to take seriously the problems our country faces due to widespread poverty. Like Rich Hill, southwestern Virginia’s economy has been tied to the boom-and-bust coal industry. Lack of employment opportunity drives young people to leave the area for higher education and employment, shrinking our workforce and growing the percentage of older residents. But even with the difficulties facing them, my youth have a unique advantage: a strong and growing network of community partners working to address these issues. Many community leaders and educators recognize the need to collaborate and to coordinate services with external agencies and private organizations, resulting in a growing network of supports that build and multiply assets for our students.

I hope the transformation our children begin to see in southwestern Virginia can serve as an example for other struggling rural communities in America.

This commentary is the sixth in a series produced for the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education by educators across the country who want to illustrate the impact of poverty on their classrooms, schools and communities and propose education policies with real promise to weaken the poverty-education link.

Thomas Brewster serves as superintendent for Pulaski County Public Schools in Pulaski County, Virginia. Dr. Brewster was recently appointed by Governor Terry McAuliffe to the Virginia State Community College Board. He also serves on the Board for Communities in Schools of Virginia. He can be followed on Twitter @edubrew.
Elaine Weiss is the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education (BBA), where she works with a high-level task force and coalition partners to promote a comprehensive, evidence-based set of policies to allow all children to thrive. Follow her on Twitter: @BroaderBolder.
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