Arts Education in Rural Communities: What's Working

By Ayanna N. Hudson, NEA Director of Arts Education

I recently came across an article that caught my attention: "Rural Education: Addressing a Tension Point in the Great American Divide," written by Dilara Sayeed, a columnist for EdSurge. I learned a lot from this article, including that one-third of all public schools across the country are in rural communities and rural areas have slightly higher poverty rates than urban areas.

Why does this matter? I know from research conducted by the U.S. Department of Education that students attending schools in high poverty communities have a lot less access—and sometimes no access—to arts education. Given what Sayeed’s article documents about poverty rates in rural communities, suffice it to say this issue has been keeping me up at night.

As I continue to reflect, however, on Sayeed’s article, I am struck by two effective practices for rural education that she cites: 1) “investing in rural educators means improving rural student outcomes” and 2) “technology is key to providing equity and access for students in rural areas . . . as it offers the resources they might otherwise find impossible to access.”

As I think about this issue, and the NEA’s vision for arts education that every student is engaged and empowered through an arts education, I am heartened that the agency has been investing in rural arts education projects across the country that address the effective practices identified by Sayeed.

For example, NEA funds are supporting the Montana Office of Public Instruction’s Teachers Leaders in the Arts where teachers are using technology to share curriculum and lesson plans; Kentucky’s Berea College’s development of an arts education plan in a Promise Zone; and Minnesota’s MacPhail Center for Music’s digital delivery of its Early Childhood Music Program to early childhood students in rural communities.

These projects are playing a very important role in expanding access to arts education for students in rural communities. In fact, a grants search on the NEA’s website generates information on these and many more funded arts education projects in rural communities that speak to Sayeed’s call for the use of professional development and technology as effective practices toward equity and access in rural education.

Adding to What Works in Rural Education: A Look at the Working Paper Leveraging Change

The identified effective practices in rural education will now be bolstered by a new working paper funded by a grant from the NEA, Leveraging Change: Increasing Access to Arts Education in Rural Areas written by Lisa Donovan and Maren Brown. This working paper, the first of its kind, adds to what we know works in rural education, with a specific focus on arts education.

Through a literature review and in-depth interviews with arts education leaders in rural states, the working paper defines and describes characteristics of rural areas, does a deep dive into the barriers to increasing access to arts education in rural areas, discusses effective practices to increasing access, and defines next steps for an action agenda to move this work forward in Berkshire County, Massachusetts.

What resonated with me in reading Donovan and Brown’s paper? A lot. In 15 states, more than half of all schools are rural, including Alabama, where the NEA is funding the Alabama Alliance for Arts Education to work with cross-sector partners to collect statewide data on the status of arts education. This will aid in the development of a shared agenda with measureable goals for creating a comprehensive arts education plan for Alabama.

While the working paper describes many impediments to arts education for rural students—distance, weather, lack of transportation, educator retention, funding—one of the greatest barriers to increasing access is lack of economic opportunity. However, lack of economic opportunity is also one of the greatest opportunities. The authors of the working paper note how the arts are “being identified as a powerful strategy for revitalizing rural communities. . . [Creative Placemaking] examples abound, highlighted by the National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town initiative, ArtPlace America, and Project for Public Spaces.” In addition, there are numerous regional economic, education, and community planning efforts underway in communities across the country.

While many of these economic development initiatives do not currently include arts education components, they still represent a positive development as it’s possible for arts education leaders and stakeholders to join these existing efforts. There is tremendous opportunity to ensure arts education is part of the solution to create jobs, to address the impacts of poverty, and, according to the authors of the report, to “participate in community networks to build strong communities.”

A second insight that resonated with me from Leveraging Change is that to increase access to arts education in rural communities there must be, as Donovan and Brown expressed, a “paradigm shift from organizational silos to regional thinking . . . and the use of language that links shared challenges, and moves beyond a singular focus on arts education.” I was excited to read this idea in the report because working together, instead of working alone, to address complex problems is collective impact, an area of focus for the NEA since the release of our arts education strategic plan in 2014.

While the authors call out the collective impact framework specifically, the working paper reveals the importance of understanding how to move forward collective impact in a rural context. For example, in rural communities, the backbone organization or managing partner, which is so critical for the success of collective impact, may be harder to identify and may not be a single organization like in many urban areas. Instead, it may be a new or existing rural network where multiple organizations collaborate and share responsibility to advance the work, even across state lines.

There is not enough space in this blog post to talk about all the new insights and effective practices I gained from Leveraging Change, so I hope you will join me on May 31 at 3:00 pm ET for a webinar and robust discussion with Lisa Donovan and Maren Brown, the authors of the working paper. We will be joined by leaders working in rural communities—Tim Lampkin, CEO of Higher Purpose; Dr. Jake Eberwein, dean, Division of Graduate and Continuing Education, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and former classroom teacher, high school principal, and superintendent; and Laura Forbes, education program director at Alaska State Council on the Arts—who will all speak to the implications of the findings of the report on their work. I encourage you to read the working paper prior to the webinar and come prepared to ask a lot of questions and to engage in robust discussion. You can register for the free webinar and learn more about the participants here

I am encouraged and inspired by what we can learn from Leveraging Change: Increasing Access to Arts Education in Rural Areas. The NEA arts education team looks forward to thinking about the implications of the findings on our own work as we continue our efforts to increase access and participation in the arts for all students in rural communities.

Here are some additional resources you may be interested in:

Infographic: The Arts in Small and Rural Communities

Infographic: The NEA and Arts Education

Archive: NEA Webinar on Collective Impact

List of NEA-funded Collective Impact Projects