Key Coverage

The Tragedy of America’s Rural Schools

Harvey Ellington was 7 the first time someone told him the state of Mississippi considered Holmes County Consolidated School District a failing district. Holmes had earned a D or an F almost every year since then, and Ellington felt hollowed out with embarrassment every time someone rattled off the ranking. Technically, the grade measured how well, or how poorly, Ellington and his classmates performed on the state’s standardized tests, but he knew it could have applied to any number of assessments. His school didn’t have clubs, and even before the pandemic, they hardly went on field trips. Every year, teaching positions sat unfilled for months at a time. The football team often made the playoffs, but the field at the high school was inadequate, and so the squad had to travel 10 miles west to play outside an elementary school.

While researchers and activists have spent decades detailing the ways urban schools have failed children, students like Ellington are learning in more dire conditions. Most of the country’s poorest counties are rural, and two years ago, leaders at the Rural School and Community Trust, a national nonprofit group, found that decades of population loss and divestment by state governments has left many rural communities facing “nothing less than an emergency” when it comes to educating children.

Nationwide, more than 9.3 million children — nearly a fifth of the country’s public-school students — attend a rural school. That’s more than attend the nation’s 85 largest school districts combined. And yet their plight has largely remained off the radars of policymakers.