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The Challenges of Being Gifted in a Rural Community

The majority of programs for gifted learners were developed for suburban and urban schools. Rural schools can be quite different and may need to modify these programs to meet the educational needs of their gifted learners. For example, very small rural communities have so few families that an entire school may have only a handful of students incontiguously in kindergarten through eighth grade; high school students may be sent to distant towns, and may even board during the week. On the other hand, a rural community can have a K-12 attendance center of 750 students (or even several elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school) in a town of 8,000 people but can be isolated by distance or other geographic barriers. Recruiting teachers and obtaining resources to educate children in rural areas present challenges, yet rural communities also have advantages.

Ironically, the potential strengths identified...can also be barriers, depending on the dynamics within the community.

Strengths

Small communities and schools can make accommodating a gifted student's educational needs easier than in a larger community for the following reasons.

  • Children’s needs are more apparent because classes are smaller and, thus, more difficult to ignore.
  • Getting approval to implement new accommodations may be easier because administrators are more accessible.
  • Implementing accommodations is less overwhelming because teachers have fewer students to oversee.

Some additional strengths of rural communities include:

  • Rural schools have small student bodies. Students frequently can participate in a greater selection of extracurricular activities, because fewer students are competing for available spots on teams and leadership positions in clubs. Because of their numerous and diverse interests, gifted students often like to be involved in several activities.
  • Rural communities tend to be supportive and close knit. School personnel, students, and families often socialize outside of school, so teachers have more opportunity to observe their students’ achievements in other settings beyond school. Because of this familiarity, teachers accept gifted students’ individual differences more readily and may be more willing to modify instruction for them.
  • Community members are accustomed to adapting available resources. The community opens itself up to being used as a resource, enhancing open-ended learning opportunities. For example, students may learn everyday knowledge of electrical circuits and mechanics from a local farmer, if the school doesn’t have a physics teacher. Farms and ranches can also serve as laboratories for botanical and biological research. In essence, the community becomes the classroom.
  • Community membership tends to be stable. Students are often grouped with the same individuals throughout their school years, permitting classmates and teachers to develop strong relationships. These bonds can give teachers a personal incentive to make accommodations and can help students support eachother.

Although, some characteristics of rural schools can offer benefits for gifted students, potential barriers may also be present. Regardless of the obstacles that exist, surmounting them is possible.

Potential Barriers and Solutions

Small size and isolation combine to present certain difficult challenges for educators and students in rural schools. Ironically, the potential strengths identified above can also be barriers, depending on the dynamics within the community.

  • Each grade level may have few students, hence fewer gifted students. Justifying additional time and resources for a very small number of students may not appear reasonable. Possible solutions include:
    • Content acceleration—sending a student to a higher-level class for instruction in one or more subjects. This solution causes less work for the higher-grade teacher, who would accept the incoming student and present the same coursework, than for the lower-grade teacher, who would have to obtain the higher-level material.
    • Whole grade acceleration—moving a student to a higher grade. Parents and teachers in often have fewer concerns about grouping younger students with older ones, because of familiarity within the community.
    • Cluster grouping—grouping gifted students from several grades in one classroom. This increasingly popular strategy, allows one teacher to employ various methods of differentiation such as compacting curriculum; accelerating students by subject or grade; and providing advanced or enrichment materials; creating learning centers; allowing students to work on independent projects; guiding discussion groups to support gifted students’ affective needs; or involving students in extracurricular clubs to develop their leadership skills.
    • Few educators have specialized training in gifted education. Schools have few staff members, who generally have multiple responsibilities; experience difficulty obtaining additional training or university classes for staff, due to the community’s remote location; face challenges hiring qualified teachers who are willing to relocate. Possible solutions include:
      • taking advantage of the increased number of distance learning options that have become available for teachers to obtain additional certifications, advanced degrees, or continuing education credits, such as online, streaming video, satellite, fiber-optics, videotape, and CD classes.
      • providing gifted-specific professional training by state gifted associations, local educational service providers, and university outreach.
      • sharing qualified teachers among districts to alleviate shortages in advanced content areas.
      • allowing students in remote areas to develop essential relationships with like-ability peers and mentors through interactive computer technologies such as listservs, virtual field trips, video-conferencing, and chat rooms.
  • Educational resources may be unavailable. For example, a library with an extensive or academic collection may not be within reasonable driving distance, or counseling services are not available or are limited to serving special education students. Possible solutions include:
    • School media specialists obtaining advanced books for high-end readers through interlibrary loan or high quality research resources via the Internet.
    • Suitable academic, career, and psychological counseling services being provided through: cooperative arrangements with other school districts that have qualified counselors; online counseling using synchronous virtual chats and asynchronous discussion board meetings; and counseling via teleconferencing or videoconferencing, which are even more effective since they offer confidential, real-time communication and can be used in one-on-one or group counseling.
  • Traditional values prevail and may cause resistance to change. Gifted students who want to pursue careers not found in their rural community may be discouraged by family and friends.Possible solutions include:
    • career education with exposure to nontraditional and unique careers via the internet, biographies, interactive CD-ROMs, guest speakers, career fairs at nearby colleges or larger communities, or counseling via online services or teleconferencing technologies; or
    • specialized counseling that focuses on academic and career preparation, including examples of adults who succeeded in pursuing their dreams despite growing up in a rural environment.
  • Community demographics may hinder nurturing gifted individuals. In rural areas, the incidence of poverty is greater; single-parent families may be more numerous; fewer social services are readily available; access to cultural enrichment is limited; and high rates of younger, better-educated residents emigrate to more populous areas. Possible solutions include:
    • Specialized discussion groups, seminars, or clubs to help gifted learners with identity development. The adult group leader should be sensitive to traditional gender expectations while broadening awareness of educational and career options.
    • Summer residential programs on college and university campuses to enable academically talented students to meet others with similar interests and abilities.
  • Community emphasis may not be on education. Ranching, farming, fishing, hunting, or sports may take precedence. A possible solutions would be:
    • building an appreciation for academic and creative accomplishments by through a community awareness campaign. Activities could involve sponsoring student demonstrations at festivals, fairs, or during holiday celebrations; arranging short informational segments on radio, television, or cable access shows; collaborating with a local newspaper to publish educational articles and class projects or competitions; and obtaining sponsors for support or recognition of student academic and creative accomplishment.

Specific Things Parents Can Do

Since schools have limited resources and educators wear so many hats, particularly in rural schools, support from well-informed parents is needed more than ever. Parents must be knowledgeable about gifted education and need to understand their community’s abilities to meet the educational needs of gifted students.
Parents in rural areas can use their individual skills and advocacy efforts to:

Potential mentors need to be screened carefully, and students should be supervised during mentoring sessions to ensure safety.

  • work with teachers to find resources and materials that are needed for accelerated and enriched learning experiences in class and outside of school. Look for materials on school subjects, vocational, and avocational interests via Internet search engines (Google.com, Ask.com, Search.Yahoo.com, or the Web index site bubl.ac.uk); books and media in public, college, and university libraries; and books for parents of gifted learners (see the resources listed in the sidebar).
  • access and share information about educational opportunities for gifted and talented students provided by university talent searches and other programs run by universities, colleges, and other organizations.

Conclusion

In light of perceived shortcomings, rural communities have unique strengths that can enhance the lives of gifted children. Even in isolated or sparsely populated communities, gifted children can get a high quality education. However, parents need to be supportive and involved by learning about the characteristics of gifted children and the kinds of learning opportunities needed to extend their skills; by being aware of how gifted children’s social and emotional needs may differ from those of more typical children; and by advocating for advanced educational opportunities.

Parents have a great deal of power to improve the quality of education for their own children and for the school as a whole.
However, they need to wield it carefully. Much more can be accomplished when parents offer positive feedback, assistance to educators, and work with other parents. Forming a parent support group or working with a parent-teacher association provides support for both parents and teachers. Together, they can build on the strengths of their community for a better education for all children, including those who are gifted.
Joan D. Lewis, PhD, and Cherry Hafer

Joan D. Lewis is associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and the Director of Gifted Education for the University of Nebraska campuses.

Cherry Hafer is in her 27th year of teaching. She has spent much of her professional career teaching English and social studies in rural schools.

* There are a surprising number of different ways to define the word "rural." Yet any area where geographic isolation interferes with access to education can be considered rural.