Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

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

Rural Education Research: Current Investments and Future Directions

By Emily Doolittle, NCER Program Officer

In school year 2010-11, over half of all operating regular school districts and about one-third of all public schools were in rural areas, while about one-quarter of all public school students were enrolled in rural schools.(The Status of Rural Education)

 

About 12 million students are educated in rural settings in the United States. Teaching and learning in these settings generates unique challenges, both for the schools operating in rural areas and for the researchers who want to learn more about rural schools and their needs. Recognizing this, NCER has made targeted investments in rural education research through two of its National Education Research and Development (R&D) Centers.

The National Research Center on Rural Education Support focused on the educational challenges created by limited resources in rural settings, such as attracting and retaining appropriately and highly qualified teachers and providing them with high-quality professional development. Specific projects included:

  • The Targeted Reading Intervention (TRI) program, which seeks to help rural teachers, who often work in isolation, turn struggling early readers (kindergarten and 1st grade) into fluent ones. Using a laptop and a webcam, a TRI Consultant supports the classroom teacher as they provide diagnostically-driven instruction in one-on-one sessions.
  • The Rural Early Adolescent Learning Program (REAL) professional development model, which helps teachers consider the academic, behavioral, and social difficulties that together contribute to school failure and dropout for adolescent students. Accordingly, REAL is designed to provide teachers with strategies to help students make a successful transition into middle school.
  • The Rural Distance Learning and Technology Program, which examined the role of distance in advanced level courses for students and professional development for teachers; and
  • The Rural High School Aspirations Study (RHSA), which examined rural high school students’ postsecondary aspirations and preparatory planning.

The National Center foResearch on Rural Education (R2Ed) examined ways to design and deliver teacher professional development to improve instruction and support student achievement in reading and science in rural schools through three projects:

  • The Teachers Speak Survey Study investigated (1) variations in existing rural professional development (PD) experiences; (2) differences in PD practices between rural and non-rural settings; and (3) the potential influence of PD characteristics on teacher knowledge, perceptions, and practices in one of four instructional content areas: reading, mathematics, science inquiry, or using data-based decision making to inform reading instruction/intervention.
  • Project READERS evaluated the impact of distance-provided coaching on (1) teachers' use of differentiated reading instruction following a response-to-intervention (RTI) model and (2) their students' acquisition of reading skills in early elementary school.
  • Coaching Science Inquiry (CSI) evaluated the impact of professional development with distance-provided coaching for teaching science using explicit instruction with guided inquiry and scaffolding on teacher instructional practice and science achievement in middle and high school.

R2Ed also conducted two related sets of studies.

  • The first set explored ecological influences and supports that may augment educational interventions and outcomes in rural schools. The goal of this work is to understand contextual influences of rurality and how they interact to influence parent engagement in education and child cognitive and social-behavioral outcomes.  
  • The second set explored methodological and statistical solutions to challenges associated with the conduct of rigorous experimental research in rural schools.

As R2Ed completes its work, NCER is considering how to support rural education research going forward. As a first step, we hosted a technical working group meeting in December 2014 to identify research objectives of importance to rural schools and to reflect on the success of the R&D Center model to advance our understanding of rural education. A summary of the meeting is available here on the IES website.  The ideas shared during this meeting will help guide future IES investments in rural education research.  

Please send any comments or questions to IESResearch@ed.gov.