IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Building Partnerships to Support Mental Health Needs in Diverse Rural Schools: The National Center for Rural School Mental Health

About 1 in 5 school-age children experience serious mental health issues yet few receive services. In rural schools, geographic isolation and limited resources make receiving services even more difficult. The IES-funded National Center for Rural School Mental Health is addressing this challenge.

The 5 year, $10 million National R&D Center is supporting partnerships with a wide variety of rural school districts in three states (Missouri, Virginia, and Montana) to develop and test ways to support the mental health needs of their students. I recently spoke with Dr. Wendy Reinke, the Center’s director, about the unique mental health needs in the rural settings where the center is working and how she and her colleagues are approaching this work.  

Tell us a little bit about the rural communities you are partnering with in Missouri, Virginia, and Montana.

Each state provides a unique geological context that we anticipate will inform the tools and interventions we are developing for wide use in rural schools. For instance, Missouri sits in the middle of the country where half of the school districts are considered rural and another third or so are considered small towns. Virginia encompasses central Appalachia which struggles with issues of under-employment, mental health, and school dropout. In the northwest, rural residents are scattered across Montana’s 56 counties, 30 of which are classified as “frontier” counties with three or fewer persons per square mile.  The tools and interventions we develop will need to be feasible and effective across these very different contexts.

What are the most common mental health challenges being faced in the different rural communities you are partnering with?

Part of the work of the Rural Mental Health Center will be learning more about the types of  mental health challenges faced by rural communities. From my current work in Missouri’s rural schools, common areas of concern include youth with depression, anxiety, conduct problems, substance abuse, and suicidality.  Identifying youth early can help to prevent or reduce the burden of these problems.  Accordingly, we plan to not only offer interventions for youth facing mental health challenges but work with schools to prevent and identify early, youth who would benefit from supports.

The work you have planned for the center builds on prior IES-funded work. Tell us more about how this work provides a foundation for launching the work of the center.

A cornerstone of the Center is the use of an assessment tool that will allow schools to gather data to determine their needs for school-level prevention, group-based interventions, and individualized interventions.  This tool was developed in partnership with six school districts (five of which are rural) and University of Missouri researchers.  Through the IES partnership grant we were able to validate the measure and gather stakeholder input to improve the tool and the overall intervention model.  These data collected using this tool will be linked to evidence-based interventions, several of which have been developed and evaluated through IES funding.  It is very exciting to have the opportunity to pull all of these projects together to support our rural schools.

Much of your earlier research has been done in urban school districts. How did you become interested in research with rural schools? What would you recommend to other researchers interested in doing research with rural schools?

I grew up and attended school in a rural coal-mining town in Pennsylvania. When I moved to Missouri, I had access and opportunity in working alongside rural school districts.  One recommendation, which I think goes for research in any schools, is to operate as a partner with them. For instance, the six school districts we worked with formed a Coalition, and we include the Coalition as co-authors on any publication or presentation that comes from this work.  Further, we present with partners at conferences and report back findings to the community.  I think an open and collaborative relationship gains trust, allowing for additional opportunities to conduct research alongside our school partners. Additionally, our ideas for studies are nearly always driven by the needs expressed by our schools based on the pressing challenges they report to us.

The Center also has a policy focus with work that will be led by your Montana partners. Tell us more about this aspect of the Center’s work and the types of policy issues the Center will address.

We will be working with rural school district partners across the three states to identify important issues facing rural schools.  Dr. Ryan Tolleson-Knee from the University of Montana will be leading this initiative.  At the Center kick-off meeting held in June, a subgroup of rural school partners interested in policy was formed.  The plan is for this subgroup to develop a toolkit that can be readily used by public school personnel and state and national policymakers to improve outcomes for youth.  One topic of interest is how might rural school districts partner with one another (similar to the Coalition described earlier) to maximize and share resources across the communities.  Over the next five years, the toolkit will expand and connect to issues faced by our rural schools.

Written by Emily Doolittle, NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research

New Report on School Choice in the United States

Across the United States, parents have an increasing number of educational options for their children, including traditional public schools, public charter schools, private schools, and homeschooling. Although the majority of students attend traditional public schools, the numbers of students attending public charter schools or homeschool programs are growing, according to recently released data.

Using survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the newly released School Choice in the United States: 2019 report provides information on student enrollment; individual, family, and school characteristics of students enrolled in different educational settings; achievement; school crime and safety; and differences in the school choice options that parents select and their satisfaction with their children’s school.

 

School Enrollment Trends

Over time, the numbers of students enrolled in traditional public schools, public charter schools, and homeschool programs have increased (see figure 1). Enrollment in traditional public schools was 1 percent higher in fall 2016 (47.3 million) than in fall 2000 (46.6 million). 

Public charter schools grew at a much more rapid rate in that time, with enrollment increasing by more than 500 percent, from 0.4 million in fall 2000 to 3.0 million in fall 2016. Enrollment in homeschool programs has also grown, nearly doubling from 1999 (0.9 million) to 2016 (1.7 million). However, private school enrollment fell 4 percent between fall 1999 and fall 2015.

 


Figure 1. Enrollment in traditional public schools, public charter schools, private schools, and homeschooling

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), “Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey,” 2000–01 and 2016–17; Private School Universe Survey (PSS), 1999–2000 and 2015–16; Parent Survey and Parent and Family Involvement in Education Survey of the National Household Education Surveys Program (Parent-NHES:1999 and PFI-NHES:2016).


 

Student and School Characteristics

This report also explores enrollment in different school options across a range of characteristics, including students’ racial/ethnic background (see figure 2), family composition, household poverty status, parent education and employment, and more.

For example, public schools enrolled higher percentages of Black and Hispanic students than did private schools in fall 2015. Within the public school sector, public charter schools enrolled higher percentages of Black and Hispanic students and lower percentages of White and Asian/Pacific Islander students than did traditional public schools in fall 2016. And, the percentages of students who were homeschooled in 2016 were higher for White and Hispanic students than for Black and Asian students.

 


Figure 2. Percentage distribution of elementary and secondary enrollment, by school type and student race/ethnicity: 2015 and 2016
 

#Rounds to zero.
NOTE: Figure excludes homeschooled children. Race categories exclude persons of Hispanic ethnicity. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Private School Universe Survey (PSS), 2015–16; and Common Core of Data (CCD), "Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey," 2016–17.


 

In 2016, about 58 percent of public charter school students were enrolled in schools in cities, compared with 29 percent of traditional public school students; traditional public school students were more likely than public charter school students to attend schools in suburban areas, towns, and rural areas.

In 2015, about 43 percent of private school students were enrolled in schools in cities, and 40 percent were enrolled in schools in suburban areas. However, homeschooling in 2016 was more prevalent among students in rural areas than among those in cities and suburban areas.

 

Parental Choice

In 2016, parents whose children were enrolled in public or private schools were asked about their decisions regarding school choice. Twenty-eight percent of students had parents who reported that they had considered schools other than the one in which their children were currently enrolled, and 80 percent had parents who reported that their children’s current school was their first choice. Among public school students, 20 percent had parents who reported they moved to their current neighborhood so their children could attend their current public school.

Each of these percentages was higher for students from nonpoor households than for students from near-poor or poor households (see figure 3). For example, 31 percent of students in nonpoor households had parents who reported that they considered other schools for their children, compared with 23 percent of students in near-poor households and 21 percent of students in poor households.

 


Figure 3. Percentage of students enrolled in grades 1 through 12 whose parents considered other schools, reported current school was their first choice, or moved to their current neighborhood for the public school, by family poverty status: 2016

1 Includes public school students only. Private school students are excluded.
NOTE: Data exclude homeschooled children.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Parent and Family Involvement Survey of the National Household Education Surveys Program (PFI-NCES:2016).


 

Browse the full School Choice in the United States: 2019 report to learn more about these and other trends related to school choice and student enrollment.

 

By Amy Rathbun and Ke Wang