Leveraging the Rural Context to Build Family Engagement

by Anne Fikes
April 10, 2020

(Repost of a December 3, 2018 post on the REL Appalachia Blog. REL AP serves educators in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia to support use of data and evidence to improve academic outcomes for students.)

At the Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia (REL AP), we travel through rural eastern Kentucky and work with school leaders. They regularly share that students in Appalachia face significant barriers to postsecondary success such as lack of exposure to models of college and career success, lack of confidence to pursue postsecondary opportunities, and low college graduation rates and problems obtaining gainful employment. Families can play a critical role in helping students overcome these barriers by encouraging their academic achievement1 and supporting their postsecondary aspirations.2 Research shows that rural Appalachian students are more likely to have college-going aspirations if they perceive parent support for their postsecondary pursuits.3 Recently, district leaders and practitioners from rural Eastern Kentucky working with REL AP spent time exploring opportunities to increase family engagement as an important approach to support students’ successful transition from high school to postsecondary education and training programs. On November 7, REL AP hosted the workshop Bridges to College and Career: Family Engagement for Successful Student Transition at the Eastern Kentucky University Campus at Manchester, Kentucky. The workshop helped practitioners identify and learn how to use strategies for engaging rural families in ongoing efforts to improve transitions to postsecondary schooling or training and ultimately to improving young people’s life outcomes.

Leveraging rural communities’ assets to meet local needs

Figure 2: Advantages and strengths of rural schools in engaging and partnering with families to improve student outcomes from research studies and from practitioner experience, as identified by workshop participants.
Figure 1: Advantages and strengths of rural schools in engaging and partnering with families to improve student outcomes from research studies. 5, 6, 7, 8

Conversations among REL AP staff and workshop participants highlighted that potential solutions to increasing family engagement in rural schools lie in the unique strengths of rural communities. Rural communities offer several advantages, identified both in research studies (figure 1), and by practitioners at the workshop, who identified additional strategies to consider based on their experiences (figure 2). According to workshop attendees, community interconnectedness is an advantage in rural schools’ efforts to strengthen student success. Practitioners are familiar with their students’ lives outside of school, know students’ families and caretakers and where they work, and have opportunities to see both students and families outside school. These intimate community networks are not limited to teachers and students and can include bus drivers, school cafeteria staff, school counselors, and other caring adults in schools. Participants echoed findings from research that rural families frequently attend school social events such as football games, which can provide an opening for schools to connect with families.4

Family engagement strategies that leverage the assets of rural communities

Figure 3: The Wall of Strategies for college and career preparation and for family engagement identified by workshop participants and panelists.

Research suggests family engagement and support is an important factor in students’ postsecondary transition planning, but there is limited evidence from the literature on whether specific family engagement strategies result in increased postsecondary enrollment and success rates. Nonetheless, workshop participants and panelists created a “Wall of Strategies” (figure 3) to document the family engagement strategies they use or that they believe could help draw families into the process and improve student success in transition to postsecondary education and training programs.

Drawing on broader research on family engagement and incorporating the ideas and experiences of REL AP’s partners in Eastern Kentucky, we’ve highlighted a few strategies and best practices for rural communities below.

  • Engage with families outside of the school building. Expanding family engagement to meet families where they are—beyond activities that occur on a school campus or during a school day—is a key piece of engagement in any community. Attendees at the workshop connect with families where they live and work through home visiting, meeting families in church, and intentionally having conversations out in the community such as at a restaurant or the store where a family member works or shops. Research suggests home visiting in particular can strengthen relationships between home and school 9 and build academic readiness in young children.10 Panelists and practitioners who work with students across a range of ages also mentioned home visiting as an effective strategy.
  • Bring postsecondary awareness into all aspects of school life. Incorporating academics and conversations about postsecondary transitions into extracurricular activities is an important way to get families involved.11 Rural families frequently attend school social events, such as football games, offering schools the opportunity to engage them around academics and transitions when they are at school voluntarily. For example, during football games schools can spotlight students who have applied or been accepted to college. This idea resonated with workshop attendees, who find that families often come to school but not necessarily with the intention of becoming informed on or involved with postsecondary planning.
  • Engage unlikely postsecondary ambassadors. Panelists at the workshop mentioned that rural communities offer a network of caring adults who know local students and their families and can offer insights into their lives and needs. The broader school community, such as the school nurse, bus drivers and cafeteria staff can provide referrals for students who need assistance and offer additional opportunities to connect with students and their families. Schools can develop ambassadors through student assignments such as interviewing grandparents or other community members about the history of their community and family and their education and work experiences.
  • Understand and address families’ fears related to postsecondary transition. Rural practitioners’ community connections can help them understand the fears and hesitations that students and families have around postsecondary pursuits. Leaving the town or region to pursue college often holds a lot of unknowns for rural families. Workshop attendees described families’ fears that boys will leave for college and not know how to cook for themselves and that the girls might be unsafe on college campuses. Regional practitioners have responded to these specific concerns by offering cooking and self-defense classes for high school students. Bringing families on college visits can also be a strategy for familiarizing and informing families about the postsecondary environment.12

Rural students and families need targeted support to be well equipped for postsecondary success. The research base, however, does not present adequate evidence for practitioners who seek a range of evidence-based family engagement strategies to systematically implement in their rural community. Additional rigorous research is necessary to strengthen and expand our knowledge of the most effective ways to engage rural families in postsecondary transitions.

REL resources

This toolkit from REL Pacific provides resources for school staff to build relationships with families and community members and to support family well-being, strong parent child relationships, and students’ ongoing learning and development.

This blog post from REL AP shares research on the barriers that families perceive to their children enrolling, persisting, and completing a postsecondary credential or degree.

For more information on this topic, check out Ask A REL!

The REL AP Ask A REL team has responded to several questions from stakeholders in the region about college and career readiness, including the

If you have additional questions on this topic or others, feel free to e-mail relappalachia@sri.com or submit your question to REL!


1 Keith, T. Z., Keith, P. B., Quirk, K. J., Coehen-Rosenthal, E., & Franzese, B. (1996). Effects of parental involvement on achievement for students who attend school in rural America. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 12, 55–67. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ534739.

2 Byun, S-Y., Meece, J. L., Irvin, M. J., & Hutchins, B. C. (2012). The role of social capital in educational aspirations of rural youth. Rural sociology, 77(3), 355–379. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ977996.

3 Ali, S. R., & Saunders, J. L. (2006). College expectations of rural Appalachian youth: An exploration of social cognitive career theory factors. The Career Development Quarterly, 55(1), 38–51. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ768705.

4 Meyer, J. A., & Mann, M. B. (2006). Teachers’ perceptions of the benefits of home visits for early elementary children. Early Childhood Education Journal, 34, 93–97. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ747270.

5 Bausch, P. (2001). School-community partnerships in rural schools: Leadership, renewal, and a sense of place. Peabody Journal of Education, 76(2), 204–221. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ654792.

6 Chance, P. L., & Segura, S. N. (2009). A rural high school’s collaborative approach to school improvement. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 24(5).

7 Prater, D. L., Bermudez, A. B., & Owens, E. (1997). Examining parental involvement in rural, urban, and suburban schools. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 13, 72–75. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ552819 .

8 Rosenberg, L., Christianson, M. D., Angus, M. H., & Rosenthal, E. (2014). A focused look at rural schools receiving School Improvement Grants (NCEE 2014–4013). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Science, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED544784.

9 Meyer, J. A., & Mann, M. B. (2006). Teachers’ perceptions of the benefits of home visits for early elementary children. Early Childhood Education Journal, 34, 93–97. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ747270

10 Sama-Miller, E., Akers, L. Mraz-Esposito, A., Zukiewicz, M., Avellar, S., Paulsell, D., and Del Grosso, P. (2018). Home visiting evidence of effectiveness review: Executive Summary. Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://homvee.acf.hhs.gov/homvee_executive_summary.pdf

11 Witte, A. L. and Sheridan, S. M. (2011). Family engagement in rural schools. In Redding, S., Murphy, M., & Sheley, P (Eds.), (2011). Handbook on family and community engagement. Information Age Publishing & Academic Development Institute. https://eric.ed.gov/?q=ED565697.

12 Gear Up NC Appalachian Partnership. (n.d.). Family Engagement Toolkit: Strategies and Resources to Communicate with Families.