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Creating Inclusive Classrooms and Communities for Rural Poor

By — Diversity in Education Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Apr 11, 2011

Small towns have long been idealized as good places to raise children. Research shows that agrarian small towns can work in ways that support successful child and youth development. High levels of trust emerge when everyone knows everyone else, making childrearing a community responsibility. Likewise, the small class sizes and abundant individual attention that characterize rural schools encourage intimate ties with both adults and peers. For families and children included in these social networks, the shared time and attention of adults are concentrated on the task of raising children. Young people with access to these supportive community structures are more resilient in overcoming serious family traumas. Yet for the poor, and even working poor, integration into the social fabric of a tightly-knit small town can be challenging

Poor Are Often Excluded

Ethnographic research provides evidence for how small town structural and social processes exclude poor and working poor families and children.

  • Without ties to the land, poorer families are routinely assigned a lower status in the local social hierarchy and are excluded from the community’s social resources.
  • Residential patterns that cluster poor families into open-country pockets, trailer parks, or rental apartments work to create rural neighborhoods that are marked as “the wrong side of the tracks.”
  • Poorer rural families living in these neighborhoods, along with those who have a “ne’er-do-well” reputation are socially stigmatized.
  • Deficient housing, unstable employment, and a bad family reputation further spur on patterns of residential mobility that exacerbate a family’s integration into community.
  • School districting policies that segregate poorer children to schools on the edge of town, pay-to-play sports, and limited transportation for after-school activities can have the unintended consequences of excluding poor and working poor children.

The ramifications of being left out of small town life intensify the effects of poverty and narrow opportunities by excluding poorer children and youth from the kind of social, educational, and cultural experiences that might otherwise support healthy, successful development.

Discrimination in Rural Schools

There is a misconception that schools, as an institution, work toward creating greater equality. In reality, rural schools often present a microcosm of the power relationships in the wider community. When rigid class boundaries exist within a community, discrimination, exclusion, and stigmatization based on social class and other differences can all persist and be reinforced in small town schools.

What Parents Can Do To Promote Inclusion

Watch your language. We often hear from school personnel that what is said at home carries over to school. Be careful with how you refer to specific neighborhoods and families and how you talk about poverty in general. Terms like “dirt poor,” “trailer trash,” and “broken homes” perpetuate negative stereotypes. Statements such as “well you know they are” only work to reinforce the ideas about an “us” and “them.”

Avoid assumptions.Vet your children’s friendships on an individual basis rather than working from assumptions. We hear too often about friendships ending when a sleep-over birthday party or a prom date pick-up revealed a trailer park address. Take time to get to know the families of your child’s friends. Model for your children the importance of working from actual knowledge rather than unfounded information.

Act as a community liaison. Through roles as a coach, Sunday school teacher, mentor, or fellow parent, individuals can work to integrate poor and working-poor families into place. Model empathy, not sympathy and remember: a community is only as good as the individual members who call it home.

Act collectively. When community members work to break down rigid class boundaries, more democratic processes prevail. Such processes are important if we are to get serious about supporting families and reducing the intergenerational persistence of poverty.

Together, community members can work to create scholarships that are easily and widely accessible, develop transportation plans that ensure access, and question policies and practices that work to exclude or limit access.

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