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Rural Children, Real Challenges
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"You can't build a house without a hammer and saw, and you can't expect an adult to build a successful life if the tools of learning and health weren't instilled in childhood," says Joan Benso of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. Her organization's recent report about the state's nearly 500,000 rural children suggests that many are dealing with challenges as difficult as those of kids in urban areas. Included: Highlights from a report that surprised even its creators!


"The conventional view of a child in poverty is a child of color, sitting on the stoop of a rundown row house. With the facts presented in this report, the picture now includes a child in a rural setting, facing the same obstacles to learning, health, and general well-being that the urban child in poverty faces."
-- Joan Benso
Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children
Lawmakers and citizens often think that urban children need the most attention when it comes to issues of health and education. But in Pennsylvania, officials of the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children (PPC) hope to change that perception. They recently released a report, Miles to Go: The Well-Being of Pennsylvania's Rural Children, which found that life for rural children can be every bit as challenging as for urban children.

"We began this effort with a goal of myth-busting -- showing Pennsylvania lawmakers and citizens that there are children in need where people would least expect," said Joan Benso of PPC.

Although the report was designed to surprise lawmakers and the public, it also startled its creators. "Frankly, we encountered a few surprises ourselves," Benso told Education World. "The biggest surprise was the finding that the rate of rural childhood poverty actually exceeds [that of] urban childhood poverty -- that was a shocker."

Miles to Go: The Findings

The following are among the findings published in Miles to Go:
* More rural children (18 percent) than urban children (15.5 percent) live in poverty.
* A single parent heads 24 percent of all rural families.
* One in 12 rural children is born to a mother under 20.
* One rural child in six is born to a mother who has less than a high school education.
* Though fewer rural high school students drop out of school than the state average, only 18 percent of these dropouts plan to get a GED.
* One rural infant in five is born to a mother who used tobacco during pregnancy.
* There is one primary care doctor for every 358 rural children.
* There is one pediatrician for every 3,636 rural children.
* There is one dentist for every 584 rural children.

OVERCOMING INERTIA

Dr. P. Duff Rearick, superintendent of the Greencastle-Antrim School District in south-central Pennsylvania, would not be shocked by this finding from PPC. His district would benefit fiscally if its citizens could be persuaded to sign up for public assistance. They often refuse to declare their poverty status, and Rearick believes the main causes are pride and a distrust of government that is prevalent in the rural district.

"In this rural community, people value education -- to a point," explained Rearick. "They value a high school diploma but not education after high school. Only 11 percent of our residents have college degrees, and in 1995 we sent only 39 percent of our kids on to education after high school. With a lot of work we have raised that number to 67 percent in six years.

"A major hurdle for a rural district is overcoming the inertia present in a community," Rearick continued. "'Life here is good, I do not mind being poor, indeed I like the values, and my kids are going to do the same thing -- this is a frequent direct and subtle message sent to children."

A unique benefit of the school's rural location, Rearick reports, is that the active church life of the residents promotes strong families. When a student faces a problem or a parent conference is held, both parents typically attend. "We are the life for our kids and community," explained Rearick. "The social fabric for kids and parents circles around the school and church. Rural schools are a throwback in this respect. On Friday night, we are literally the only game in town. There is a strong sense of community."

Even with parental determination to be involved while their children are in school, "I think the primary challenge rural kids face is a lack of preparation for school," Rearick told Education World. "We are working hard and have some evidence of success in helping parents of preschool children teach fundamental skills at home. The reality is that if a child has the basic skills, barring some issue, he or she is going to succeed. It seems that rural parents may not recognize their importance as part of the developmental puzzle."

Learn More About Rural School Issues

* A View from the Rural Trust Read this Education World e-interview with Rachel Tompkins, president of the Rural School and Community Trust. Tompkins talks about the challenges facing rural school systems.
* Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools This organization, made up of superintendents from rural and small schools in Pennsylvania, seeks to influence public school policy and funding.

PRESCHOOL, PREVENTION, AND A PROMISE

The absence of adequate learning experiences prior to school is of great concern to Benso and PPC.

"Rural children deserve an equal shot at success, so lawmakers must remember the plight of rural children when developing policy solutions," she said. "Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children believes that a good start to the school years positions children for success through graduation and beyond.

"Pennsylvania is one of nine states that fail to invest in preschool, which has been proven to improve children's school readiness and help them achieve in school and in life," Benso pointed out. "An investment in quality preschool for at-risk children, including all those rural children in poverty, will help them start school ready to learn and stay on track for success."

Benso believes that effects of the poverty, poor health, and detrimental family situations that appear to be common in rural communities land squarely in the classroom. She recommends that all states review the status of children in rural areas and take appropriate action to improve conditions.

"They'll probably be just as surprised as we were to find the depth of need and adversity that rural children endure," Benso observed. "Proven, prevention-focused policies can make a difference by preparing children to live their lives as well-educated, healthy, and productive citizens. ... States should develop innovative approaches that address their unique circumstances and tear down the barriers to well-being."


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