Rural Students at Risk in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas
Written by Richard Tompkins
Rural school children are more likely to face failure because of crime, substance abuse, parental neglect or other factors than city or suburban kids, a first-of-its-kind survey says....The report...suggests that the social and economic strains facing rural schoolchildren are every bit as bad, perhaps worse, as those facing city youth. (Mitgang, 1990)
To many people who have an idealized view of rural life as being wholesome and carefree, this newspaper report of a national study by Helge (1990) is, perhaps, surprising. Are rural children and youth really more troubled or at higher risk than those in larger communities?
Few issues currently draw the attention of public school educators and policy makers more than those relating to at-risk students. It is estimated that "about 30 percent of the present school population is...at risk of failure" (Bempechat & Ginsburg, 1989).
The term "at risk" was adopted from the field of public health and first used by educators in the early 1980s to describe students who were not succeeding in the public schools for a variety of reasons. Many school improvement policies and programs aimed at bettering educational services to all students, especially those at risk, also began in the 1980s and remain a major focus at all levels--federal, state, and local.
Although students can be at risk of failure in any size or type of school district, (i.e., urban, suburban, small town, rural), a great deal of the research and program development has occurred in urban schools (Houston, 1991; Theobald, 1991). Further, rural areas have seen an erosion of political power and influence to address the concerns and problems facing many of these smaller, more isolated communities (Alexander, 1990). Consequently, little has been done to find out about any uniquenesses of at-risk students that might exist in smaller, more isolated schools.
Much of the Southwestern Region of Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas is non-metropolitan. Indeed, 81 percent of all Arkansas schools, 72 percent of Oklahoma schools, 61 percent of New Mexico schools, 55 percent of Louisiana schools, and 48 percent of all Texas schools are located in either rural areas or small towns (Vaughan, Boethel, Hoover, Lawson, & Torres, 1989). In terms of "real numbers" and percentages, rural students comprise a significant portion of school-age children in this Southwestern Region. Information from the 1990 census (General Accounting Office, 1994) reveals the following:Rural School-Age Children
|State||Number||% of Total|
This data, along with other demographic information about this five-state Southwestern Region suggests that rural at-risk students potentially constitute a significant portion of the region's total at-risk population.
The purpose of this paper is to explore the at-risk student situation in small and rural schools, especially in the Southwestern Region, against a backdrop of the overall at-risk situation nationwide to determine what factors are associated with being at risk in small, rural school districts. Although at-risk students cannot be counted as easily as other subgroups of students can be counted (e.g., gender, free/reduced lunch program participants, students eligible for special education services), an overall assessment of "at-risk-ness" in rural and small schools suggests that the problem is both serious and complex. Five questions are posed to explore both the complexity and the degree of "risk" in a rural school setting.
- What do studies of dropout rates suggest about the nature and incidence of at-risk students in rural schools?
- What does information about rural families, communities, and schools suggest?
- What do studies about student characteristics and behaviors suggest?
- What insights may be gleaned from social theory?
- How do rural educators and parents perceive the at-risk problem?
Since studies of rural, at-risk students are limited in number, this synthesis will first assimilate general information about the concept of risk. Factors that are commonly associated with at-risk students will be discussed. Research that does specifically address rural schools and students will also be presented to investigate whether differences among rural, urban, and suburban at-risk students exist. Finally, educational policy implications will be addressed.
Prior to addressing these issues, a comment about definitions of certain terms is in order. No one standard definition of "rural," "urban," or similar geographical term has been adopted in the professional literature surrounding educational research. Often these terms are used without any clear explanation or precise definition stated. A more detailed discussion of these terms may be found in the Appendix. However, the reader should understand that because this paper seeks to synthesize current research and literature, these terms will be used in a broad sense unless specified otherwise.
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