Rural America in Focus

March 2021, By PresenceLearning Editorial

Yuma County, in the southwestern corner of Arizona and bordering Mexico, is called the “Winter Lettuce Capital of the World,” according to the Yuma County chamber of commerce. Sunshine is common in that corner of the United States, where green rows of lettuce leaves stretch across the flat earth and help employ thousands of workers. The diverse landscape, covering 5,519 square miles, consists of a fertile valley, the Colorado and Gila rivers, and desert that rises into a chain of rugged mountains. While agriculture is the region’s leading industry, the county’s commitment to education and student growth are what enable future generations to thrive.

“We know that investing in our children will enrich our community for years to come,” is the message featured on a website for the school system, comprised of nine school districts serving about 38,000 children.

Yuma County is designated as rural, and, like so many other rural counties in the United States, faces a range of challenges when it comes to providing special education and related services that meet every child where they are. That was true for Yuma School District One, one of the largest school districts in the county, with a population of more than 10,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Of the problems they needed to solve, one stood out.

What is Rural?

While the weathered farmhouse and rows of vegetables ready for harvest often pop to mind with the term rural (reinforced as well in Merriam Webster), the various rural counties across the United States are actually vastly different from one another—and oftentimes not rooted in sparkling rows of farmland. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “rural encompasses all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area.” The school districts within that range of rural counties vary in type (classified as fringe, distant, or remote, based upon proximity to an urban area); but taken together they make up a predominant part of public education in the U.S. Of the country’s 13,491 total school districts, more than half (7,156) are considered rural.1

According to the report, “Why Rural Matters,” in 2017 about 8.9 million students attended rural schools in the United States, which amounted to “more than the student enrollments in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and the nation’s next 75 largest school districts combined.” Shared ChallengesMany Students, Individual NeedsCurrently there are more than seven million students across the country with individualized education plans (IEPs), and about 90 percent of those have high-incidence disabilities—requiring clinical expertise and treatment plans that vary according to disability. Among them are:

  • Autism
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Specific learning disabilities
  • Speech or language impairments
  • Other health impairments

Every state has at least 10 percent of rural students who require special education, with the exception of California and Texas which come in with just under nine percent; Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island have higher rates. Student populations in rural schools have only been going up in recent years, which is also creating a proportional increase in students requiring special education and related services across every disability category.

Limited Funding

At the heart of most challenges for rural districts is inadequate state and local funding. Rural districts on average take in just 17% of state education funding, despite making up more than 50% of total school districts. Disparities also exist from state to state. Per-student investment for rural students is lowest in Idaho and Oklahoma (each spending less than $4,400 per rural student) and highest in Alaska and New York (roughly $12,000 per student). When it comes to local funding, schools are a reflection of their community, and rural areas often have families with more limited means. With a higher income base in the community, the school would have greater resources and flexibility from local funding to provide better educational programs and hiring practices. But about 1 in 6 families in rural communities earn an average income that is well below the poverty line.

Hiring & Retainment

A national shortage in special education and related service providers is a growing concern, with a total of forty-nine states identifying shortages. Data reveals that these shortages have a disproportionate effect on the nation’s most underserved students. When there are not enough providers to go around, the schools with the fewest resources and least desirable working
conditions are the ones left with vacancies. The gap is growing across disability categories. For instance:

  • A 2016 report by the Health Resources and Services Administration’s (HRSA) National Center for Health Workforce Analysis forecasts a shortageof school psychologists and licensed clinical social workers through 2025.5 The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends a ratio of one school psychologist per 500 to 700 students in order to provide comprehensive school psychological services. But current data estimates a national ratio of 1:1381.
  • A critical shortage of speech-language pathologists (SLPs) extends across all regions of the country, including rural, which impedes “the ability of students with disabilities to reach their full academic, social, and emotional potential,” according to the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA). From 2010 to 2014, SLPs from urban and rural areas were more likely than those in suburban areas to report that job openings for SLP positions exceeded job seekers.
  • Occupational therapists (OT) are likewise hard to find and facing growing demand, with employment opportunities for occupational therapists projected to increase 16 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations.

At the center of the issue is that special education-related service providers exit their jobs at higher rates than other educators. A majority of SLPs, who reported there was a shortage of clinical service providers in their type of school setting and geographic area, indicated that the impact of the shortage “increased caseload or workload” and “decreased quality of service.” Another challenge frequently cited is that each school may have a relatively small population. According to “Why Rural Matters,” half of rural school districts in 23 states have an enrollment of fewer than 485 students. A provider might drive hours to see a student in school or at home—if the district can even find someone willing to do that. And the more rural the school is, the greater the challenge in hiring and retaining a qualified provider.

Ensuring Equity & Access

The combination of limited funding and teacher shortages often creates barriers to fulfilling on the promise of equity and access for all students in need. Poverty is correlated with learning outcomes, and school communities with higher poverty rates are historically less able to provide for their students who require individualized services. Special education providers are often tasked with supporting students in kindergarten through 12th grade across a wide variety of disabilities in rural schools, which stretches them well beyond their areas of expertise and leaves students with substantially less individualized attention.

More than one in four rural students is a child of color, and achievement gaps based on race are a significant concern. A 2016 analysis by the Department of Education found that the needs of students of color can often go unidentified or are misunderstood, especially when there is a lack of expertise in the school.

During the course of a three-year review, for example, 876 school districts reported giving African American students with disabilities short-term, out of-school suspensions at least twice as often as all other students with disabilities. During the past decade a renewed focus on equity and inclusion in schools, called the “Equity in IDEA” law, was introduced as a refinement to the nation’s special education law that calls for fairness among students of all backgrounds and disabilities. But the national shortage of qualified clinicians too often leaves schools unable to serve each student fully.

Student-Centered Solutions

Introducing Teletherapy: Meeting Every Student Where They Are

Finding pragmatic, student-centered solutions for special education-related services in schools is a major priority in rural America and at the heart of meeting legal requirements as required by the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. For rural areas, a teletherapy solution can help schools ensure that all eligible students receive the services they need and are entitled to, while providing schools with a streamlined and reliable resource that can extend the on-site team and be shared across the district (one that does not require hiring new teachers and therapists who must travel to distant school sites). Teletherapy can also expand access to a broader spectrum of specialty areas, to ensure that students benefit from knowledge that extends beyond their immediate geography.

At its best, teletherapy can reach more students with a network of clinical experts, each highly skilled and specialized in their particular area, and provide technology supports that integrate traditional therapy materials—assessments, class assignments, games—with video conferencing. Teletherapy also offers the ability for students to participate in therapy sessions, no matter where they live or attend school (including from home as long as they have an Internet connection and a computer). The COVID-19 pandemic only increased the need for schools to provide more flexible solutions that support schools and families in meeting every student where they are. Many schools who hadn’t previously considered teletherapy started using it, while others who were already using it expanded their offerings.

21st-Century Approach

As a growing number of schools use teletherapy to support their onsite providers and extend their teams, emerging research has centered on the effectiveness of these practices, as compared to traditional approaches. Preliminary data suggests that teletherapy for children may be as effective as in-person services, and a sampling of early studies with small numbers
of students might even suggest that teletherapy can be more effective…

Interested in Reading More?

“Rural America in Focus: Delivering on the Promise of Special Education Related Services” offers an in-depth report on the latest research from school districts in rural America, along with the challenges they face and a guide for how to open up opportunities for students with special needs.

Download the full white paper.