12/06/2013 06:46 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

Refocusing On Rural Education

As somebody who has spent the last 20 years of my professional life focused on serving children living in low income communities throughout the country, these last few years have been a learning process for me. For several reasons, including demand and funding, my past work had focused exclusively on children living in urban communities. But in the last few years, as Summer Advantage USA has grown to increasingly diverse communities, including rural communities in Colorado and Indiana, my eyes have been opened to the unique challenges that face our rural communities across the nation.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 41 percent of all rural students are living in poverty, and much research points to the persistent difficulties of getting social services to rural communities, particularly to children in need. This isolated nature of rural communities, combined with significantly lower teacher salaries in those communities, makes it difficult to staff rural schools with high quality teachers, further diminishing the resources available to students and families living there. These factors combine to contribute to lower rates of college enrollment for students coming from rural communities compared to their peers from urban and suburban areas, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. And this is not just an isolated issue: a full third of elementary and secondary public schools nationwide are located in areas classified as rural.

One partner in particular that has helped me learn more about how to meet the needs of children living in rural communities is Summit 54, a nonprofit organization located in Colorado that brings together, facilitates, and augments not-for-profit and public resources to improve educational outcomes for children in Colorado, ultimately leading to a more highly skilled workforce, less poverty, and stronger, more dynamic communities. Founded by husband and wife Tony and Terri Caine, Summer Advantage partners with Summit 54 to serve 750 children in the Roaring Fork Valley, a rural area located outside of Aspen, Colorado.

I recently had the chance to speak to Terri about her experience with and vision for the Roaring Fork Valley and ensuring educational excellence in rural communities across the country.

What are the particular or unique challenges that education faces in the Roaring Fork Valley, and in rural communities throughout the United States?
I should preface my comments by saying that the Roaring Fork Valley is unique among rural communities across the country. We in the RFV really benefit from world-class resources, from a thriving tourism industry to leading cultural organizations like the Aspen Music Festival and think tanks such as the Aspen Institute. In a lot of ways the world comes to the RFV, and all who live here benefit.

So the RFV experiences the challenges a rural community faces in a unique way, but we do experience many of the same challenges. One of those challenges is quite simply distance, and a smaller population. In a rural area you have greater distances and fewer children, so it's harder to get the minimum number of children needed to make a program financially possible, plus it costs more to bus children to the site. This translates into an issue with scalability: programs are forced to question whether they have the scale to make a program financially viable.

Connected to this, another unique challenge for rural communities can be a difficulty in staffing high quality educational programs. A program like Summer Advantage employs a program manager, assistant program manager, teachers, teacher's assistants, operations administrator, nurse, and janitors at each site so, again, there needs to be a minimum number of kids participating to make the economics work, but there also just might be a limited number of teachers and teachers' assistants available in a rural area. In many rural communities this is due to a talent gap more generally, while in the RFV local educators often have alternative summer commitments. Regardless of cause, staffing for our summer learning program has presented its own challenges. One way we've begun to solve that problem in the RFV is by partnering with a top national nonprofit whose expertise is in talent recruitment and selection. I'll speak more about the importance of partnerships to rural communities below.

Specific to the Roaring Fork Valley, when people think of our area they think of Aspen, which is a wealthy community, but that's just one end of the Valley. Travel 30 miles away and you have 44 percent of children in the RE-1 school district qualifying for free or reduced price lunch -- up from 30 percent in 2008 -- and a growing number of English language learners. We're drawn to the Roaring Fork Valley because it's our community, and we want to assist where we're able.

What do you think the national educational policy conversation and debate is missing in regards to education in rural communities?
I think people who are trying to make a difference -- nonprofits and philanthropists -- are looking to make the biggest impact they can, so it makes sense to go where there are the largest number of children. Many of these people and organizations focus on urban areas where there are the most children, which limits the resources for children in rural areas. This is a second layer of isolation for most rural communities.

But what we're doing in the Roaring Fork Valley -- bringing organizations and funding together in a partnership -- could be a model to other rural communities. We've brought together Summer Advantage USA, a nonprofit organization; Summit 54, a nonprofit organization; Mile High United Way, a nonprofit organization; government backing via the Social Innovation Fund, a federal funding stream; and the RE-1 Valley School District (the school district serving the Roaring Fork Valley) to sponsor a summer learning program that is free to families in the Roaring Fork Valley. And it's really working. The data we collect through this partnership will provide a proof point for policy that can support rural communities, as we think this partnership model can be effective for other rural communities.

Tell us about the work of Summit 54, and how the organization got interested in summer learning.
We began our work in education because we believe that education is the single most important thing we can support to help the future of our communities and the world. We founded Summit 54 three years ago to help bring additional educational opportunities to children in Colorado. Summit 54 specifically has a K-12 focus, and to date we've focused primarily on three initiatives: first, we brought to Aurora, Colorado a high quality and effective national college preparatory program called College Track; second, we helped provide initial funding for a new charter school in the Denver area called Rocky Mountain Prep, which opened fall 2012 and will eventually serve children in pre-K to 5th grade; and third, we've brought Summer Advantage USA to the Roaring Fork Valley. We've also contributed smaller amounts to a number of other educational programs in Colorado.

We live in the Roaring Fork Valley and we wanted to help our community in a meaningful way. When we started our education work three years ago we organized focus groups with teachers and principals in the RE-1 school district, and met with community and nonprofit leaders, so that we could really understand what was currently provided to students and where there were gaps in what the district or other nonprofits were offering that we could help fill. In those months of many meetings it became clear that, due to school budget cuts, summer programming through the district had been eliminated. The result was that there were no academic summer learning programs available for children in our lower Valley. Of course, there were fantastic camps focused on the arts, athletics, music, dance, and more, but many of these had a big price tag and were thus out of reach for many of our families. After reading the research we realized that summer learning loss is a big contributor to the achievement gap in this country, and in particular negatively affects children living in low income rural communities. So armed with this understanding of the local need we started to research proven summer learning programs that we could partner with and discovered Summer Advantage.

What is your vision for children in the Roaring Fork Valley, and rural communities throughout the United States?
I would love to see all children in rural communities have access to high quality education. Summer Advantage is near and dear to my heart because it provides high quality academic instruction and life enrichment with many other wonderful things like mentoring, guest speakers, healthy meals and field trips. Access to high quality summer learning experiences are particularly important for children in rural communities across the country, because these experiences help reduce the level of isolation children in those communities may experience. All children, no matter where they live, deserve to have access to a comparably enriching program.

Our mission is to work to close the achievement gap. Summit 54 is a small organization so we're realistic about what we can accomplish acting alone, but if we can be a part of the solution, by working with other likeminded individuals and organizations around the country in these partnerships that benefit rural communities, our collective impact can be huge.