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Rural, Gifted, and At-Risk: Four Research-Based Strategies to Support Advanced Learners in Small Districts

Rural, Gifted, and At-Risk: Four Research-Based Strategies to Support Advanced Learners in Small Districts

It’s no secret that rural educators and students face unique challenges. Limited staff, small budgets, and isolated geography can make it feel like a consistent uphill battle to provide rural students with access to the resources, opportunities, and experiences they need to be prepared for postsecondary success.

While these challenges are widely recognized, the conversation is usually focused around those students who struggle to keep up with their peers academically. But, what about rural students who demonstrate signs of giftedness and regularly work at a faster pace than their classmates? Too often, these students fall through the cracks—especially in rural schools and districts where resources are tight and access is limited—and end up at risk of dropping out.

The question for educators working with gifted students in rural settings becomes one of engagement. How can these learners be exposed to the opportunities and guidance they need to keep learning interesting and challenging, and how can educators help them stay on track to reach their full potential? Here are four research-backed strategies:

1. Equip educators with the tools they need

The first step in supporting rural gifted students is identifying who they are. Giftedness presents in a lot of different ways, and being able to effectively recognize these students takes intentional training and practice. Unfortunately, most educator preparation programs do not emphasize these skills. Identifying and supporting gifted students needs to be made a professional development priority at the district and building level. Administrators can set aside a budget for specific group training sessions, look into certificate or continuing education programs for key staff members available through local colleges, or simply take advantage of research and learning materials available online. The National Association for Gifted Children also maintains a list of resources for gifted education in each state.

2. Lean on literature to introduce gifted students to characters who resemble themselves

Hanover Research’s report on Engaging High Achieving Students at Risk of Dropping Out identifies poor peer relations as one of the primary reasons gifted students choose to leave school. Social isolation is a common struggle for gifted children in general, but for students in rural areas—who have a smaller peer group within close range to begin with—it can be especially challenging. These students simply may not have any classmates working at the same level that they are, and they may struggle to relate to their less-advanced peers. Books can be an outstanding tool to help these students (especially when they are young) understand that there are other children like them who share similar feelings and struggles. Keeping the classroom well-stocked with books that gifted learners will find identifiable characters in can be a great way to keep these students engaged and help them build empathy and social skills. Be sure to consider culture when building your library for gifted students as well—books should introduce students to characters in whom they can see themselves in multiple ways.

3. Prioritize adult relationships in the community

For people who make their home in rural areas, one of the most-often cited benefits is the deep sense of community. And, while gifted students may struggle with feeling like an outsider, as this article from Duke University’s Gifted Today blog points out, a tight-knit community culture is a huge asset available to support them. Strong mentoring relationships with various adults at school and in the community not only can provide a level of intellectual stimulation that advanced students may not get from their peers but also can help students begin to think critically about life beyond the classroom. Building meaningful connections with the adults around—and learning more about their backgrounds and full range of experiences—can enable gifted students to start to envision fulfilling career paths, quite possibly within the community. Plus, these relationships can help students deepen their own sense of place and appreciation for their home.

4. Leverage virtual partners to expand academic options

According to the Hanover Research report, lack of challenging coursework is a primary factor that leads gifted students to make the decision to drop out. In rural areas with small student populations and limited staff, it can be a struggle to provide the required courses for graduation, let alone a broad range of electives and advanced courses. Partnering with a virtual provider to offer fully online courses can be a flexible, cost-effective alternative to expand course catalogs and offer gifted students the specific courses they want without overtaxing resources. Virtual providers like Edmentum’s EdOptions Academy can offer access to rigorous, state-standards-aligned core, elective, CTE, world language, and advanced courses facilitated by state-certified online teachers to help advanced students explore their personal interests, work toward college or career goals, and most importantly, stay excited about learning. Plus, students can work through virtual courses at their own pace and take advantage of a highly personalized experience and plenty of one-on-one interaction with their virtual teacher.

For more resources on supporting gifted students in rural areas, the National Association for Gifted Children offers a wealth of information for educators as well as parents. Interested in learning more about how virtual options can help provide more options for your advanced students? Check out EdOptions Academy’s complete library of over 400 challenging, engaging online courses!