Rural principals have many issues in common with their urban and suburban counterparts, but there’s no question that schools in rural areas also have their own distinct set of challenges. To find out more about those challenges, we convened a roundtable this summer with experts in the field, including Ashley Campbell, senior researcher at SRI International’s Center for Education Policy; Kip Motta, principal of Rich Middle School in Laketown, UT, and NASSP Board Member; and Annette Wallace, chief operating officer of Worcester County Public Schools and former principal of Pocomoke High School, a high-​poverty rural high school in Maryland. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion.

Levin-Epstein: What are the top three issues facing secondary school principals in rural areas?

Campbell: I have not been a principal myself, but we’ve been working a lot with rural districts, and I spent the last year working with a group of districts in eastern Kentucky around college readiness and persistence. The top three issues [revolve] around college transitions: preparing students to move from the rural area to often a more urban area into college, making sure students have parent engagement and support, and making sure they understand the nuts and bolts of college and can handle the social transition. College transition is a multifaceted issue. We’ve heard a lot about teacher retention and mobility. Recruiting teachers in rural areas is one thing; keeping them is another.

Wallace: I would say for us, in a rural area, one of the key issues is probably access to health care, and access to high-quality health care. We really don’t have a whole lot of access to health care—period—but specifically, when it comes to mental health, we don’t have a lot of access to high-quality mental health care, which is something in our district that we’re working on right now. I think that’s one huge concern of rural principals.

I think another big concern right now, and it kind of goes along with the mental health piece, is school safety. When we look at the horrific school tragedies that have happened—the school shootings and things like that, they aren’t happening in our urban school districts. They’re happening in our rural school districts, in places where, like my school district, we would like to think that “this would never happen in Worcester County.” That’s something that I think is a huge challenge for high school principals and for rural high school principals everywhere.

I guess the third-biggest challenge that I think comes with that is the challenge of rural poverty; I see [it] as very different from the challenges of urban poverty. When you look at rural schools, in many ways, we are very secluded. For us, transportation [is an issue]. When we talk about post-​secondary opportunities, just having access to a life different than the life of poverty … is a huge challenge for us. Our kids can’t even get out and get a job and even attempt to get out of their situation because [of rural issues]; it just naturally creates seclusion from employment opportunities, from college opportunities. I would say those three are probably our biggest three challenges right now.

Motta: The issues facing rural principals are the same issues facing all schools and school principals. We are a middle school of 124 students in [grades] 6–8, in a district of about 500 K–12 students. As Annette said, we have issues with mental health, suicide, overall safety, diversity, acceptance, substance abuse, discipline; as Ashley referred to, student outcomes … the list goes on. This includes students, all staff, and community. Then there are the local issues all principals, including rural, have to deal with. You know, parents, staff, community, political entities. Some issues unique to rural schools are extended student travel to and from school, and limited resources for full-time SROs (school resource officers).

School Safety

Levin-Epstein: Let’s follow up on school safety. What do you think principals can do to improve school safety in rural areas?

Wallace: I don’t want to say we live a more sheltered life, but we really do. As a high school principal in a rural school, I think about it every day. It’s the first thing on my mind when we had a moment of silence … honestly, I prayed in that one-minute moment of silence for safety every day in our building. I think about all the little things. I think access is one thing in rural schools. Typically, we don’t lock down rural schools like we do in an urban setting. I think that’s one big piece of it.

[Another] big piece of it, I think, is that lack of wraparound services and strong mental health component that we have. The truth of these instances—these school tragedies that we have—is that people knew. Whether it was kids who knew something was going to happen or people in the community look back and they say, “Yeah, he really needed help.” That aspect, the mental health piece, is a huge missing piece right now in rural areas, and I think that contributes to it as well. So, those are two big contributors that I can think of right off the top of my head.

Campbell: School safety and mental health are not specific focuses of my research, but I will say that in my work, I visit many, many schools, both urban and rural, and I do have that false sense of security in rural schools. If I’m visiting an urban school, I’m much more aware of security. I enter a school understanding the rules about students wearing uniforms because they can’t have gang colors on campus, and I’m put through multiple layers of security to come in and out of the building. In rural schools, we may have to buzz to enter in, but [with] the often friendly nature of the school, it’s comforting, the guard is down. There is a real difference in entering the buildings and how closely people are watching me as I walk around the buildings in my role as a researcher, an outsider in the building.

Motta: It doesn’t matter if you are rural or not, or a secondary or elementary principal, the bottom line is all of us ask ourselves the very same question every single day, “What can we do today to make sure our students and staff are safe?” My answer: Have a community plan, regularly and critically evaluate the plan, and consistently practice the plan. Evaluate the practice, adjust the plan, practice. Can you tell I am an educator?!

Mental Health Issues

Levin-Epstein: Let’s follow up on the mental health issue. How do you deal with the notion that there are certain students who might present a danger in a school setting but don’t have adequate access to mental health professionals? 

Campbell: There is trauma-informed education. There is professional development to help teachers identify students who are struggling emotionally and [ways to] support them. This is not labeling a kid “a potential school shooter” and then providing them an intervention or reporting them to authorities. Instead, it’s an approach to the whole school, or to your entire classroom, about supporting students emotionally—especially those who’ve experienced trauma—and knowing who they are.

One of the strategies that we’ve started to look into and to think about is: Is there a list of indicators that the research might suggest puts students at higher risk for emotional and behavioral challenges in the classroom? Are these kids who we could identify through a list of indicators, ones who should have additional supports through the school? I’m not aware of any research on that, but that’s an idea we started thinking about, especially as some of my work is taking place in districts that suffer from high rates of opioid abuse and kids who live in homes with severe drug addiction in their community.

So, one thing is professional development for teachers to recognize students who have been exposed to trauma and recognize how to teach them and to work with them. It’s not necessarily in identifying kids and telling on them, but instead providing greater supports for all students in a school.

Wallace: I completely agree with Ashley on that. The other thing I would say: We definitely have had a focus on the trauma-informed instruction and educating our teachers around trauma and triggers, and signs that students are showing that they have some kind of frustration or something that’s bothering them—ways that they might lash out or [reasons] that they feel they have to unload that aggression on someone. So, we definitely are working on the instructional piece of that to inform our staff.

The other piece of it is [information or “tip” hotlines]. Maryland is doing this as part of the Safe to Learn Act—the tips lines are valuable, a place where students and staff and community people can report something if they see or hear something. It’s similar to Homeland Security, “If you see something, say something,” even though it may be nothing. It’s more valuable. I was just listening to the principal from Perry Hall High School in Maryland. He had a school shooting on my first day of school as a high school principal, so it must have been six years ago, and he said, “Kids knew something was going to happen. They knew, and they didn’t tell anyone. The shooter had said, ‘Don’t come to school. Don’t come to school on the first day.’” One part is having that tip line.

The other part of it is, there’s still this stigma. That student was struggling. You look at all these shootings, and the person is struggling. No person went in with a healthy state of mind—no person with strong mental stability and a healthy mind goes in and wants to injure someone or harm someone or take someone’s life. The other piece of it is, as a high school principal, for me it was not only educating my students to not pass judgment on people who are struggling with mental health, but really educating my community. I will say, and I don’t know if this is more prevalent in rural communities or it’s just everywhere, but there is a huge stigma attached to mental health, and looking for mental health services is very frowned upon in our community. Honestly, the first thing they are going to say is, “Oh, that person’s crazy.” And that is the last thing we need to be doing.

To answer the second part of your question, one thing that we’re doing in our school district in talking about access to those metal health services is that we’ve been trying for the past four years to get a health care center in our building. We are this year, at Pocomoke High School, very close to having a telemedicine program with the hospital that’s closest to us, which is 55 minutes away from our school, but it’s our local hospital. We’re going to have access to Sheppard Pratt [Health System], which is probably the best mental health institute in the state of Maryland. Our students, through that telehealth program, are going to have access to mental health services.

Besides professional development of teachers and educating your community on strong mental health and wellness of your mind and body and spirit, how do we bring that health care to our kids? I think telehealth, for us, has been the best thing we can find right now. That way, it’s much more cost-effective. Physical efficiency is important. We have to think about the fact that we don’t have the money to bring those mental health services to us, so how can we do that? That’s one way we’re doing it in our school system.

Motta: Professional development for students, staff, and community surrounding mental health/suicide issues is paramount. Being aware and not dodging the importance and the severity of the mental health issue is also necessary for addressing metal health/suicide. This is true for our schools and whole communities. The first part of the question references privacy issues. In a rural district the size of mine, there is nothing private. Really, if we truly suspect someone of possibly being an active shooter, then report it. Keep the kids safe. The second part is about resources. Of course, more money would always help, but, as a principal and a district, we need to find the resources. We are talking about the mental health of all, but especially our youth. Go beat the bushes, beg, barter, recruit the resources necessary to help our kids. Then put the resources into play.

Campbell: You mentioned the privacy issue around mental health, and it’s not like we can give teachers a report of students’ mental health. But there can be school partnerships with local social service agencies. And they can work together in partnership to address student needs. I saw this in California in a study we did there, where they had monthly meetings bringing together some of the community-based organizations, student caseworkers, and people from the school district to talk about a case list of students that needed additional supports [that had been] identified and on folks’ radar. That’s not necessarily to say that these students had mental health issues—it could be any range of social supports that they’re receiving for at-risk students.

Wallace: She’s absolutely right. We partner with our local health department. I didn’t address your privacy piece, either. We have really strong partnerships with our health department, although their services, again because of money, are limited, but we have great partnerships with them. We met at my school twice a month. We met with everyone—our health department, we had a local physician from our town who came in, and (with permission of the parents) we discussed and really tried to provide social service workers, everyone we could think to include in that, trying to provide the whole support services, wraparound services, for the kids. I think school districts are using that as well. But you really have to have the parents’ permission to have those conversations, to address the privacy part, which can be a challenge.

Teacher Recruitment and Retention

Levin-Epstein: What are the best ways to recruit and retain teachers for principals in rural areas?

Wallace: At my school, we are a rural school. Honestly, when I started there, we were the lowest-performing school in our district. Over 70 percent of our kids come from homes of poverty; the majority of our kids are African-​American. Teachers were getting punched in the face in the building. That was where we started. We had the biggest number of teachers every year with names on the transfer list. People got a job in Pocomoke and then they wanted to get out, and that’s just the truth. It’s a sad truth, but it was the truth.

The two ways that we handled recruiting high-quality teachers and retaining them in our rural, high-​poverty school is 1) we had to build a climate and culture that people wanted to be a part of. Part of that comes with “build your own,” so part of it is having the students who are in your district and in your school want to be teachers. I don’t know that we sell the teaching profession enough. I don’t think teachers are great salesmen of the position. But we really are working hard to be better salespeople to our students.

In my mind, diversity’s great, and we want to bring people into our district, but the other piece of it is we have incredible people here that we have to be tapping into, and we want them to know that teaching is a great profession. We’ve really worked hard in the past six years to build that climate and culture to be a place where people love their jobs and want to come to work every day.

The truth of it is, if you love your job and you want to come to work every day, you’re going to stay. You’re going to have some people who, for various reasons, are going to have to leave, whether it’s a family emergency, a crisis, something they have to attend to, but for the most part, when people are happy and they love their school, they don’t want to leave. Building that climate and culture is one [thing], and 2) for us is using social media to tell that story. Every opportunity that the staff at Pocomoke High School gets, they understand that they have to tell that story. Social media … you open up recruiting to the whole world when you start using social media to do those kinds of things!

Campbell: I would add that recruiting teachers begins in teacher preparation programs. I am working on a study of a Teaching Quality Partnership grant. Those are federal grants given to teacher preparation programs to reform the preparation of tomorrow’s teachers. California State University-

Chico in northern California has one of these grants, and they are doing a residency model. California does a fifth-year teacher preparation program, which is different than a lot of places in the country where it’s part of your undergraduate degree. So, you have bachelor’s degree-holders entering teacher preparation for one year; they do a residency in rural schools so they get to learn the culture of what a rural school is. The rural schools are across northern California.

What we are hearing from them that is different about being in a rural school is recognizing that you’re going to wear multiple hats. They are typically small schools, so you are going to be the coach and the teacher in your first year and be part of the organized events at school. You also might have more preps. If you’re a math or science teacher, there are only enough students in each grade to fill one class. So, teachers coming out of teacher preparation need to recognize that in a rural school, they may have multiple preps for different courses at the secondary level.

One thing the Teaching Quality Partnership grant does not do is require students who’ve gone through this program to teach in a rural school. They are required to teach in a high-needs school, but not necessarily rural. So, we’re tracking the students to see how many of the candidates graduate and stay in rural areas. That is still to be seen. But what we do know is that they are likely better prepared for the culture and the community that they are going to be in.

Motta: There is no question teacher preparation is important, and I like the program Ashley described. Quality training always is a plus, and training in a rural setting will possibly help recruitment, but if you want to retain teachers in rural communities, your chances greatly improve if they have local ties. This is the grow-your-own concept Annette is describing. This concept has increased our district’s and my school’s retention rate. In the last six years, I have only had to hire two certified teachers. Both [came] this year, and both with strong community ties. It should be noted, one of the positions filled was because the vacating teacher moved positions within the district. This educator also has strong ties to the community. Selling the beauty, strength, and importance of our profession is vital for not only fostering future teachers but for letting the world know of the grand successes we experience with children every day.

Levin-Epstein: One final question: What’s being done about the opioid crisis in rural areas?

Campbell: I can’t speak to whether drug addiction is more prevalent in urban or rural areas, but I am working in eastern Kentucky with four districts through the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) at SRI International, which is federally funded. Part of the REL’s role is to partner with schools and districts and states and support their use of evidence-based practices. In this work, we spent a large chunk of our first year in eastern Kentucky asking them about their culture and community. And the conversation often came back to poverty and the opioid crisis. It’s really taken over their communities. So, it relates to everything, to helping students be socially and emotionally prepared when they’ve come from a traumatic household. Or the role models they have—they don’t see community members going to work every day. There’s a lot of unemployment and poverty. I do think that the opioid crisis is very serious in rural communities, and it’s an issue that needs to be addressed for academics to improve. It touches everything.

Wallace: I agree. I haven’t done enough research to speak intelligently about the opioid crisis as far as whether it’s more far-reaching in rural communities or not. I just haven’t done my research on that. I know it’s a significant problem.

Motta: As I have stated, rural schools have the same issues as all schools and society. Awareness, education, training, community involvement, practice, and evaluation of social/healthy lifestyle programs is how we address all substance abuse, including tobacco (vaping).