In rural schools, online help for bottom, top learners

Red flag: The more rural the school district, the more difficult it can be to properly serve students on the educational extremes.

Rural schools and schools in low socioeconomic areas face a litany of challenges. Transportation, hiring/retaining staff, distance from students’ homes, budget shortfalls – these are all common obstacles, often by virtue of nothing but location.

And oftentimes, sadly, students and their families bear the burden of these disadvantages. And frequently, it’s the students on the extremes of the achievement spectrum who are impacted most.

Studies show that rural students have considerably less access to Advanced Placement courses than their urban peers. Close to 50 percent of rural school districts throughout the country have no secondary students enrolled in AP courses at all.

Several factors create this devastating reality. One of the most tangible, and easiest to solve, is the availability of qualified and capable teachers, and whether districts have the resources to hire them.

Harry Aurora: Everything on the line.

Fortunately, innovations in technology and digital learning offer solutions. One rural district in upstate New York pushed last year to add AP high school classes in U.S. history, Spanish, computer science, statistics, studio art and computer applications. It was unable to hire a qualified AP Spanish teacher, however, because the rural region simply didn’t receive any applicants.

In response, iTutor’s online virtual-classroom platform connected the district’s students with a state-certified Spanish teacher from another region of New York, in real-time. During the school day, students visit a designated classroom for online sessions with their iTutor educator – a seamless online learning experience that enables the high school to offer an AP course it otherwise couldn’t.

Declining populations also hit rural communities and rural schools the hardest – meaning these communities not only pull from smaller recruitment pools, but there might not be enough demand to justify a particular AP hiring. If only three students want to take an AP art class, for instance, a school probably can’t offer it.

One-on-one online instruction helps remedy this unfair disadvantage – and since iTutor is also accredited by AdvancED as a Digital Learning Institute, districts can choose to have our state-certified educators serve as the teacher of record, and even issue student grades for academic credit.

Research shows that scoring a 3 or higher on an AP exam is indicative of future collegiate success, making the need for AP availability clear. Meanwhile, similar issues lurk at the other educational extreme, special education programs.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Education reported that nearly 13 percent of all national students – amounting to 6.7 million students between the ages of 3 and 21 – now receive special education services. Educators across the country lack both the time and support needed to adequately teach special-needs students, and in rural school districts, special-ed teachers face even more challenges, with far fewer resources.

On Long Island, the Smithtown Central School District took steps a few years ago to address the social and emotional needs of students who required an alternative educational environment. Smithtown partnered with iTutor to create a program for students reintegrating into the classroom after a prolonged absence, combining academic and social/emotional support. Such students are often coming from a home-instruction plan, among the most restrictive learning environments because of the lack of peer socialization, and are particularly at risk of developing poor social and emotional skills.

Several students are in the program today, meeting daily with iTutor staff to review core academics and elective subjects, and to work on their social skills.

Programs like this can be critical to a district: Student enrollment drives public-school funding, and the fewer students enrolled, the less the funding.

Pair that disadvantage with the remoteness of rural communities, and the limited availability of resources and experienced educators becomes a pervasive problem – requiring a widespread solution.

Harry Aurora is the founder and CEO of Jericho-based digital-education innovator iTutor.