Journal Issue: Excellence in the Classroom Volume 17 Number 1 Spring 2007
Attributes of Rural Communities
As the noted rural sociologist Daryl Hobbs has observed, one of the problems with past generalizations about rural America is that rural America defies generalization.1 But it is possible to describe in some detail the features of a rural community. Some of these features can be considered fundamental to or inherent in a rural community; others are simply associated with such a community.
Among the inherent characteristics are small size, sparse settlement, narrowness of choice (with regard, for example, to shopping, schools, and medical services), distance from population concentrations, and an economic reliance on agricultural industries, sometimes in tandem with tourism. In keeping with Hobbs’s assertion, not all of these essential characteristics necessarily apply to each rural community. For example, a community might be small but densely settled. The term rural, then, might imply small, but small need not imply rural. Even assuming uncritically that rural implies small can be problematic: sometimes large-enrollment centralized school districts serve geographically large rural settings. Likewise, certain regions, such as the newly coined “micropolitan statistical area,” can be simultaneously urban and rural. As defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, each of these relatively sparsely settled regions must have at least one urban cluster with a population of at least 10,000 but less than 50,000.2
The economic base of rural communities tends to be place-bound. Enterprises like agriculture engage seasonal workers, and other place-bound industries like meatpacking are increasingly using immigrant workers to minimize labor costs.3 Indeed, the rural economic base may be shifting to include more industries that are place-bound and that can make use of low-skill workers. Such shifting has far-reaching effects for the schools in general, and for their ability to recruit and retain high-quality teachers in particular.
Other attributes are not inherent in rural communities but nevertheless tend to be closely associated with them. For example, many rural areas are seriously impoverished.4 Indeed, the incidence of poverty in conventionally defined nonmetropolitan areas is higher (14.6 percent) than it is in metropolitan areas (11.4 percent), although poverty rates are highest (16.6 percent) in metropolitan central cities.5 Among the 250 poorest counties in the United States, 244 are rural, and out of the more than 8 million children attending public schools in rural areas, 2.5 million live in poverty.6
Rural communities are also associated with aging populations and with population and job loss. For example, populations have dropped in rural areas in response to declines in traditional rural industries like wood products, textiles, apparel, and leather, coupled with agribusiness consolidations and the decline of family farms.7 These trends have created one of the most pressing challenges facing many rural communities—namely, retaining younger populations.8
But rural communities are also associated with positive attributes, such as beauty and serenity. And economies in rural areas grew briskly after the 1990–91 recession and grew more rapidly than those in urban areas in the first part of the 1990s.9 One study attributes the more rapid growth to technological innovations of the information age, new forms of work organization that permit workers to reside away from population centers, and the expansion of jobs that do not require college degrees. The study sees the largest share of jobs in the near-term rural economy as requiring more than a high school degree, but not as much as a college degree.10
Finally, rural communities vary widely both within themselves and across regions of the nation. Some rural areas, particularly resorts, for example, feature extremely valuable real estate, whose high property taxes have implications for funding rural schools. Yet poverty can exist in these same resort settings. Highly valued properties are typically held by part-time residents who engage permanent residents in low-wage service jobs like waiting on tables and caretaking. Real estate prices can become so high that permanent residents are forced to live elsewhere and to commute into the resort communities. In states where property owners vote on school budget referenda, it can be hard to secure the support of the absentee landowners for maintaining the schools even if the property wealth base is high.
Rural school districts in the western United States also differ from those in the east, partly because of geography and partly because of history. In years past, many small country schoolhouses dotted the nation’s eastern, particularly northeastern, states. As school district consolidation has proceeded over the years, the number of districts has declined substantially, but many small districts continue to exist, particularly in New York and Pennsylvania. Elsewhere, particularly in the south, county-level districts are more common, and consolidation efforts are more typically focused on individual schools.
A legacy of consolidation can have important internal implications for schooling.11 Consolidation can join separately organized communities that vary widely in terms of their culture, values, and worldview. Teachers and other school officials in consolidated districts must then find ways to bring together the differing perspectives into a common and coherent schooling endeavor. When consolidations are contentious, teachers and administrators must do what they can to forge a new community identity. As the prevalence of hyphenated school district names in the aftermath of school consolidations suggests, the task is not easy. The presence of multiple community identities within a school district is a common hallmark of a rural school setting.
One final twist is that sometimes rural attributes can be taken on voluntarily. Some schools and school districts, for example, are small out of choice rather than out of necessity. To the degree that added costs are associated with small scales of operation, policymakers have been more sympathetic to providing relief for places that have no choice but to be small. Of course, in practice, the choice-necessity distinction can be a vexing one to draw.