Helping Kids Learn, Grow and Connect - Wherever They Live

By Mary Garbacz

Eighty-five percent of Nebraska's school districts are rural.

That means that with the exception of Lincoln and Omaha, the majority of the remaining youngsters in Nebraska attend rural schools. Even though there are more students in Lincoln and Omaha than in the rest of the state, Nebraska is a perfect place to research the strengths and needs of both rural and urban education, according to Susan Sheridan, George Holmes University Professor and Willa Cather Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology at UNL, Professor of School Psychology and Director of the nation's only National Center for Research on Rural Education (R2Ed). The center was established in 2009, the result of a nearly-$10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences that will keep R2Ed on the UNL campus for five years.

Sheridan is also director of UNL's Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Family and Schools (CYFS) where R2Ed is located. "The nature of the work that we do here in our Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools and the research we will be doing through the National Center for Research on Rural Education are very hands-on. It's very's very much about the lives of Nebraskans," she said. Everyone, regardless of where they live, has concerns about children, she added.

"Our work is really about real life and the things that matter most to people: education, child-rearing and health...healthy environments for children that are supportive, that are nurturing, that promote their learning and optimal development," Sheridan said.

Support and Training for Teachers, Improved Education for Children

The National Center for Research on Rural Education will provide support and training to rural schools and their teachers. More than 500 Nebraska teachers will take advantage of this training and other services and will apply new research-based methods in their classrooms.

Two R2Ed goals are improving reading skills for students in kindergarten through third grade and improving middle school and high school students' skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics - known as STEM. STEM education is a national priority, Sheridan said, and rural school districts often are severely understaffed in these areas.

R2Ed will also focus on supporting teachers and families as they work together to address concerns they share for their children. Sheridan and her R2Ed leadership team have worked in urban and suburban areas, bringing families and schools together to set goals and develop plans to help kids succeed, but they have never tested that approach in rural schools.

"We know a lot about the challenges that families face in rural areas and the real difficulties in creating these connections across families and schools when you're talking about a school maybe being 30 miles away from home," she said. There are also other issues that get in the way of being able to create these relationships and partnerships. Logistics is one issue; concerns such as behavior and achievement are another. She expects the work of R2Ed will begin to bridge the barriers in rural areas that already are being addressed in urban areas.

Susan Sheridan
Dr. Susan Sheridan


Urban-Rural Differences

"There are a lot of differences between urban schools and rural schools. One is resources," Sheridan said. Urban schools tend to have more resources and more specialists to address both behavior and academic concerns, she said. "In rural schools, we're talking about large geographical distances separating small groups of children - an area that might span 300 miles. All the students are together in a couple of buildings because they have consolidated the educational opportunities for these kids."

Logistical challenges such as snowstorms and agricultural schedules can keep kids away from school in rural areas, she said. Some limiting factors are physical challenges, like the distance between home and school. Distance is not only a consideration for students, it can be a consideration when planning parent-teacher meetings and creating close home-school partnerships.

There are often teams of science teachers, math teachers and counselors in an urban school system, but in a rural area, there might be just one science teacher for the entire K-12 school system, or one math teacher for a middle school and high school curriculum. "So not only is it fewer resources, but it's limited access, fewer specialists and logistical challenges of creating connections," she said.

Attracting and keeping high-quality teachers in rural schools is a challenge, Sheridan said, and research in R2Ed will emphasize teacher support and professional development, as well as ways to build resources for teachers in rural areas. For example, teachers and specialists in larger schools have the chance to share ideas and lesson plans with other members of say, the science team. That option isn't available to teachers in some rural areas, so the R2Ed group is discussing ways technology can create virtual teacher lounges among some of the rural schools. "We're hoping we can create these new opportunities for camaraderie, connections, supports and communities of learning that teachers will want to ascribe to," Sheridan said.

Besides Sheridan, the R2Ed core leadership team includes Todd Glover, Gina Kunz and Gwen Nugent, all UNL researchers with the Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools, and James Bovaird, a UNL educational psychology faculty member. However, there are partnerships with many other areas.

"The work that we're doing and partnering with other science researchers around campus represents a very unique marriage of educational researchers that come from our center, with content people from the area of engineering or physics or other hard-science disciplines," Sheridan said. "People come to the table with different strengths, different areas of expertise and we are creating something new and different that none of us would have been able to create had we worked independently."

Sheridan's passion is families, and that guides her work. She discovered early in her career that learning about a child's family situation was essential to helping the child. "So I created a new model for consulting with teachers that connected families very squarely in the whole process and then created a whole research program around that," she said.

"Children work and live and function and learn and grow in many different environments, and there are connections between them. The stronger the connections, the more support and safety nets there are for children," she said.

"The learning opportunities for children extend well beyond a school building. If we're really concerned with educating children, we have to think very broadly about where all those learning opportunities occur."