The conditions of the rural white working class and poor have been receiving increased attention lately. What do we really know about this demographic? Studies of their conditions could help illuminate their lives and highlight the social needs of this population.
In a recent issue of the NASW Press-published journal Children & Schools featured a study done by Jill A. Hoffman, PhD, Dawn Anderson-Butcher, PhD, Michael Fuller, PhD, and Samantha Bates, LMSW, that looked at the school experiences of middle school youth in rural Appalachian Ohio. The researchers wanted to understand what challenges and resilience factors affected the lives of these youths.
The researchers noted that youths experience an array of risk and protective factors that influence their developmental and educational outcomes. A resilience framework showcases the various risk and protective factors across multiple systems that influence the academic achievement of youths in rural schools. Broadly, risk factors represent deficits experienced by youths, such as a lack of parental monitoring or communities with limited school resources. Protective factors, on the other hand, represent assets and strengths, including high self-esteem, favorable social skills, and positive relationships with teachers. Consistent with ecological theory, risk and protective factors occur at the individual, peer, family, and school levels. As such, the degree to which rural youths perform well in school is dependent on the complexities of and interrelationships among multiple factors.
The study specifically examined rural middle school youths’ perceptions of their school experiences. Key reported strengths included
- well-developed social skills,
- high levels of parental involvement, and
- positive perceptions of peer relationships.
However, needs regarding support for diversity and feelings of school connectedness were noted. As such, the researchers suggest that interventions in rural middle schools that focus on embracing diversity and improving school connectedness may be warranted. Also, some academic learning, school climate, and youth development variables may play an important role in rural middle youths’ academic outcomes. Specifically, academic motivation, peer relationships, and social skills were positively and significantly related to higher achievement. However, they found that free or reduced-price lunch status also was significant, yet associated with lower achievement, further suggesting that youths living in impoverished rural communities are at continued risk for school failure.
Additionally, the researchers note that according to this study other academic learning and school climate variables were not significant predictors of achievement. Findings differ from other past studies that have highlighted the importance of safety, family and community connections, and school connectedness. The current findings therefore suggest that it is possible that these experiences are less important for learning in rural settings, as compared with urban or suburban areas.
The authors conclude:
[R]ural youths face individual, peer, family, and community risks that can hinder their learning. To improve academic and developmental outcomes, it is important for rural schools to understand the school experiences of youths. In doing so, schools can plan strategically to address risks evident among youths, while simultaneously increasing supports to enhance achievement. Our study examined multiple experiences of middle school rural youths, exploring which factors and influences are most related to academic achievement. Findings suggest motivation and peer relationships are positively and significantly related to better academic outcomes. As such, schools serving rural youths, in particular, should institute programs and strategies to maximize motivation for learning and foster positive peer relationships.