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Although achievement gaps are often framed as an urban problem, disparities along lines of student characteristics are also troublingly large in rural places. Nebraska has expressed a continued interest in understanding more about achievement gaps in rural schools.

“Closing the achievement gaps does two important things,” said Jeanne Surface, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Nebraska (Omaha). “First, it improves the chances of future success. Knowing that you’ve been successful leads to additional confidence and chances for ongoing success. This is important for the school and the children. Second, schools are the centers of rural communities and having the knowledge of an important success like closing the achievement gap leads to a sense of hope in the community. While it may seem small, closing the gap brings a renewed sense of possibility to our rural communities.”

As part of both our Rural Education Research Alliance and Nebraska School Improvement Research Partnership, REL Central worked with the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) and Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association (NRCSA) to implement research techniques that best identified school districts that were successful in closing achievement gaps. REL Central conducted trainings to build the capacity of NRCSA and NDE leaders and staff to identify rural districts successful in closing achievement gaps by discussing key methodological decision points and considerations.

Upon completion of the training, two school districts in Nebraska – Brady and Neligh-Oakdale – were recognized for having been especially successful in narrowing achievement gaps. Staff members from these districts subsequently presented on factors that they believe led to their respective gap closures. This work has also connected rural educators from around the state in job-alike roles.

“If you are in a small district and you are the only special education teacher, for example, then it would be nice to talk to another special education teacher,” Nebraska State Education Association President Jenni Benson told The Grand Island Independent in August 2019. “We are pairing new teachers up with experienced teachers and helping them to stay in the profession. We see that they get into the profession and they do not stay in teaching. We want them to stay, be a part of the community and raise their families there.”

Currently, schools remain focused on promoting the achievement and well-being of all students – particularly those who historically have been underserved. A focus on reducing disparities will be critically important as communities grapple with the closure of schools as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The connections forged between rural schools, and the sharing of knowledge by successful educators, will be invaluable resources during these times.