Encouraging rural schools to integrate arts field trips into a school year can be a hard sell. Low-resource and low-scoring schools might be less likely to agree to miss a day of content if they are feeling pressure from the state to improve test scores. They may have a more difficult time finding or paying for available buses that can take them several hours away on a field trip to an arts institution during a school day (particularly districts that only have a single bus), or struggle to find parent escorts to help corral the students. Even if they are able to acquire these resources, they may be more willing to take the students on a reward field trip for doing well on standardized tests rather than on an educational one as a complement to their studies.
So how can arts institutions and advocates work to promote access to out of school arts experiences, and create lasting relationships with rural schools? Here I will outline several suggestions, using our state of Arkansas as an example.
Understanding rural communities and identifying existing biases.
Despite outward stereotypes, Arkansas is becoming increasingly diverse. This 2018 report from the Migration Policy Institute noted that though around 42% of Arkansans live in a rural county, there are over 90 languages spoken in Arkansas, with nearly 54,000 Arkansas students speaking another language other than English at home. Just over half of the student population (51%) in one rural district on the Oklahoma border are English language learners. Though Arkansas as a whole still has a predominantly White population, art institutions should understand that their content will be received by a wider variety of guests, even from rural school districts.
People in rural areas often have strong ties and commitment to their communities, which can be an asset to researchers or arts institutions interested in bringing in more arts experiences. However, since rural economies are still based mostly on agricultural and manual labor jobs, it may be more difficult to make a pitch for more arts education that may not be perceived to contribute to these specific career skills. We have found that some of the individuals who are most openly receptive to arts interventions are school leadership and teachers who have been educated in large urban centers and have returned to their hometown to teach or offer support to the local school district. These community members can be important advocates as well.
Arts institutions should be receptive to rural culture and values in order to create strong and respectful relationships with schools and families.
Be mindful of cultural differences and access.
Rural schools can be appealing to arts institutions that are aiming to reach out and offer access to communities that are more isolated or less likely to visit on their own. However, not all students or families will initially be receptive to out of school arts interventions.
Some families may not want their children exposed to certain kinds of art that parents are unable to control access to such as paintings that include nudity, or language being used in plays that some might consider inappropriate. Students from a school district with a primarily African American student population in the Delta may not get as much out of going to a museum several hours away that only includes historical art created exclusively by White artists and with content only presented by White docents without an appropriate lens for their audience. One recent study by Department of Education Reform alums shows that teacher matching (where a student and teacher share the same race/ethnicity) matters in how students experience school, which may also be true for the arts. ELL students also may not get much out of seeing a theater performance if the content is not accessible for viewers who do not yet speak English.
Exposure may not be enough on its own to greatly benefit students, and researchers may not be able to accurately measure student experience if arts experiences aren’t created to be culturally sensitive, or if teachers or families do not trust the institutions to provide important or appropriate content.
Identify school resources and needs, and communicate how the research would benefit students.
K12 arts researchers should aim to support and benefit communities through their studies, and a seemingly obvious but vital piece is asking rural schools what kind of arts experiences they want or need in their communities, and how arts institutions can better cater to those needs.
Having a qualitative component to arts research is a smart way to make participants feel heard and to aid in understanding what students are getting out of these experiences. Researchers are still learning how to create effective scales to measure gains in non-cognitive skills like tolerance and empathy, and questions not written for a certain age group might be difficult for students to answer honestly on a survey. Directly interviewing stakeholders like school leadership, teachers, students, or even parents can help researchers and arts institutions understand better what students are getting out of these interventions, how they can be improved, or develop additional research questions to explore (turns out, kids love to talk when you ask their opinion!).
When community members aren’t consulted, they can feel patronized or unheard by visitors from large urban institutions, and, ultimately, the members of these communities should have a say in what kinds of experiences might support their students best.
How arts institutions and advocates can maintain positive relationships with rural communities.
With the understanding that every community is unique, here are a few suggestions for how to attract and maintain relationships with rural schools.
- Arts institutions should be flexible and receptive to criticism from schools and researchers when interventions don’t work as planned, or when teachers aren’t interested in reinforcing the information or skills presented during interventions.
- Arts institutions should provide free lunches for visiting schools, along with free transportation and admission when possible, to ensure that some of the financial barriers to access are removed.
- Arts institutions should also be open to hiring diverse, local talent that can communicate and curate appropriate experiences that directly appeal to rural, isolated, or underserved communities.
Having expertise in arts education or in arts research doesn’t mean that learning should stop or that we have all the answers. On the contrary, it should allow us to gain the humility to listen, come up with creative and culturally sensitive ways to build lasting relationships, and provide access and support to communities in need.
Laura Florick is a Research Associate in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.