The mountain of evidence that early childhood education has profound and life-long effects for students has been building for decades. Educators have made efforts to expand access to high-quality early education opportunities, but that access is not evenly distributed--rural communities are often left out of the loop entirely.
Approximately one in five Americans live in rural areas, and, according to the Center for American Progress, 59% of rural areas are defined as “child care deserts.” This term refers to areas that have fewer available child care spots than there are children in need of them. Even more concerning, there’s no guarantee that those available spots even offer high-quality preschool instruction.
My formal title is director of curriculum and instruction at Greenburg Community Schools, but I also serve as the coordinator for our Federal Title I, Title II, Title III, and Title IV and Rural and Low Income Schools grants, as well as those for high ability and gifted students.
These positions allow me to see where students are when they enter our school system at the kindergarten level and watch them evolve, experience, and mature through graduation. We see students who have been enrolled in childcare facilities since they were six weeks old, others who have attended preschool for two or more years, and still others who have never been away from home before they enter kindergarten.
I have found that there is no simple, one-size-fits-all solution to providing early learning opportunities for rural communities, but at-home, online programs are helping to fill the gap.
A lack of available preschool options isn’t the only challenge facing rural parents seeking to educate their children. With more than a quarter of rural children coming from economically disadvantaged families, cost is also a significant issue. In my own experience working with rural populations in Indiana, I’ve seen this firsthand. Many parents are unemployed or underemployed. They may be working but no longer able to earn a living wage after factories that paid upwards of $20 an hour have closed, forcing them to make due on part-time work from temporary staffing agencies that pay $9–$15 an hour. Some preschool options can cost as much as $200 per week, which puts them firmly out of reach for many rural families.