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Rural Schools Matter: The community and economic impact of public schools

Educator, Researcher, & Writer

Photos by Phyllis Graber Jensen (Bates College)

This episode is sponsored by New Hampshire’s Monadnock Region, home of the Radically Rural Summit, Keene Pride week, and the Monadnock Arts Open Studio Tour. Located only a two hour drive from Boston, incredible natural beauty and lively downtowns await! Every Urban Exodus begins with an urban escape, and yours is within thriving distance. Visit today for more information.

I am excited to invite you to my conversation with Mara Tieken. Mara is a professor, author, and expert on rural education. Her book, Why Rural Schools Matter, is an ethnographic study of two rural Arkansas communities that examines the roles that schools play in rural towns. Mara is currently working on two new research projects - one that examines the college experiences of rural, first-generation students, and another that examines the impacts of school closures on predominantly Black rural communities. Mara also studies the effects of community organizing for education reform.

Mara went to college at Dartmouth, which is in rural NH. Originally she didn’t have any intention of working education. The main detractor to her as someone who didn’t like being the center of attention, was having to put yourself front and center in a classroom and engage in public speaking daily. However, she ended up taking an education class and loved it. Afterwards, she took her first teaching internship and loved being with kids and feeding off of their curiosity.

One thing Mara noticed, is that through her studies in education, she noticed that they only ever spoke about urban education or issues that primarily affect urban students. Despite the fact that their college was in a rural community and integral to their town, she felt that there was an element missing to including rural schools into their discourse.

After undergrad, Mara got a job teaching in rural Tennessee. There, she was able to witness first hand the experience of a struggling rural public school, but also the school’s integral place in the community. She continued to fall in love with teaching and living in a rural community. However, there were also the difficulties of living in a place with high poverty rates, low employment opportunities, and one in which its population was decreasing rapidly. Mara’s school was the smallest one of six schools in their district, and there were always talks of it closing.

Mara left that position and decided to go to grad school because she wanted to create change in rural education on a larger sphere, including teaching education, and policy decision-making. Now, when Mara teaches about rural education she emphasizes how integral schools are to the community. There is a disconnect with the absence of thought and attention to rural education when it comes to the research and policy world.

Mara is working on a new book right based on her experience following a group of 9 first generation college students at an elite college. She is also doing a study on college students who come from rural areas. Another project she is working on is studying rural school closures, the community effects, and effects on children.

“Public schools are the lifeblood of our democracy. They accept all. So it’s a reflection of the community as it actually is, and if you want to be a part of that community, being a part of that public school system is probably the best way to do that.”

Rural schools have tremendous value. They are the heartbeat of a town. Beyond the education they provide, they are an integral part of the local economy and serve as a gathering place for the greater community. Consolidating a school district impacts not only students but the community as a whole. Once a school is closed, it is extremely difficult to get it reopened. Closures have lasting ripple effects.

Paraphrasing Mara’s words "public schools are vital to our democracy." They are one of the few places left that accept everyone, and reflect the community as it actually is, and they are worth saving.

In our conversation we speak about the impacts of school closures and consolidations in rural America, how rural schools have weathered Covid, the lasting ramifications of segregation and discrimination in public schooling, the blind spots that legislatures have when it comes to rural education and funding, the economic and social value of public schools in rural communities, and why everyone should be paying attention to the issues facing rural education.



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