Rural Schools

Legal Rationale: Implications for Rural Schools


What is the definition of a rural community? Low numbers of English language learners (ELL) are characteristic of most schools situated in rural communities. 

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture says:

    Rural communities are in small country towns, defined by geographic isolation from other communities, absence of large metropolitan centers, low-density settlement patterns, historic dependence on agriculture, and continual population loss, out-migration, and economic upheaval or economic distress.

  • Title VI under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 says:

    The local education agency is rural if the total number of students in average daily attendance at all its schools is fewer than 600, or each county served by that school has a total population density of fewer than ten persons per square mile, and all of its schools meet the definition ofrural as described by the National Center for Education Statistics.

  • The National Center for Education Statistics says:

    small town is not within a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) and has a population of less than 25,000 and greater than or equal to 2,500 people. A rural town exists inside or outside an MSA if its population is less than 2,500 people and coded rural by the MSA.

Most schools in rural communities enroll very few students for whom English is a second or new language. Sometimes, interventions in small schools are dealt with as they occur without formal procedures. The issue of developing a comprehensive plan or policy for ESL in a small school may seem out of place.

The following facts illustrate the dramatic need for quality interventions for ELL students in rural schools:

  • 44% of America's ELL students live in rural communities.
  • Only 30% of the states have fewer than 5000 ELL students statewide.
  • 33% of America's towns enroll ELL students.
  • Enrollments are too low to establish a bilingual education program.
  • ELL student enrollment growth across the USA is greater in rural than in urban schools.
  • Rural schools are more Caucasian than urban schools are.
  • Rural schools lack credentialed ELL teachers; they tend to hire tutors or classroom aides instead of teachers.
  • Rural schools tend to be distant from universities.
  • There are no national models for ELL rural programs and policies, affecting the knowledge base of best practices.
  • Rural teaching does not reflect the diversity of most of America.
  • Urban ELL students transferring to rural schools are not likely to experience the kind of program that may have been available to them in an urban school.
  • Rural schools lack the political power base that urban schools have.
  • Rural schools have nearly no access to federal discretionary grants for ELL. What access they have yields few resources.
  • Rural schools often have no access to state funds designated for ELLs because their ELL enrollments are too low.
  • Teachers in rural schools tend to know little about ELL methodology, multiculturalism, ELL curriculum development, ELL assessment, and second language acquisition theory.
  • Administrators in rural schools, though perhaps well intentioned, do not tend to place ELL policy, budget, and other support mechanisms, very high among the school's priorities.

Ensuring that ELL students are not marginalized requires a special effort in rural schools, because the rights of English language learners and their access to appropriate instructional programs are not limited by the number of students in a school.


Cummins, J. (2001). Language, power and pedagogy: Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory. (2003).Claiming opportunities: A handbook for improving education for English language learners through comprehensive school reform. Providence, RI: Brown University.