VA Tech Researcher Looks to Instill Pride and Hope for Rural Schoolchildren

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Soft light reveals the beauty of landscape in rural Virginia.

Negative depictions of life in rural America can shake the confidence of promising young people. From criticisms about how they talk to how they think, the perpetuation of stereotypes can lead children to doubt their own potential.

Amy Azano believes these children deserve to see the value in their hometowns — and themselves. To achieve her vision, the associate professor of adolescent literacy and rural education is leading extraordinary initiatives centered on rural education.

Azano will launch the Summer Enrichment Experience at Virginia Tech, offering a new residential opportunity for 80 to 100 students from high-poverty regions in sixth and seventh grades.

She also aims to create sustainable gifted programming in rural Appalachian schools through the Appalachian Rural Talent Initiative. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation awarded Azano two grants totaling $760,290 in support of her mission.

“These generous grants, along with support from the School of Education and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, will allow us to establish the only enrichment program of its kind in the region,” said Azano. “The grants give us the time needed to develop and evaluate the program while also finding ways to sustain efforts in supporting rural communities.”

The Summer Enrichment Experience at Virginia Tech, or SEE VT, will provide residential enrichment for rural students from low-income communities. While most of these types of programs are tuition dependent, SEE VT comes at no cost to students and their families, Azano said.

“I’m looking forward to providing rural middle-schoolers with an opportunity to explore Virginia Tech and gain academic and social experiences with peers, while also thinking about their rural identities and the sustainability of rural communities,” said Azano.

Alongside Azano, graduate assistant Michelle Rasheed is coordinating a curriculum for SEE VT with two other doctoral students, Heather Wright in English education and Malle Schilling in engineering education. The students earned a university-wide grant through the Institute for Creative Arts and Technologies to develop interdisciplinary, place-based curriculum centered on the Food, Energy, Water Nexus.

The course will provide opportunities for middle school students to explore intersections of the Food, Energy, Water Nexus while investigating specific issues impacting rural regions. Students will identify and work to solve real-world issues relevant to their rural communities through creativity, innovation, and partnerships with experts.

The curriculum-building team is receiving support from Hannah Scherer, a faculty member in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Azano said plans to launch the residential program on campus this summer will be delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the team will use the time to pilot the curriculum, along with a place-based memoir unit, with regional schools.

“We will eventually have SEE VT up and running for an in-person delivery and will continue developing the program until that happens,” said Azano. “We are committed to closing the opportunity gap for rural students.”

As for the Appalachian Rural Talent Initiative, Azano hopes to build onto the experiences learned through another rural-based gifted program. For the past six years, Azano has helped lead research in rural education through a U.S. Department of Education grant called “Promoting PLACE in Rural Schools.” She’s worked in several school districts in Southwest Virginia and Kentucky.

“When visiting these schools near the end of the grant, teachers and community stakeholders often asked, ‘what now?’ They wanted to sustain our efforts and learn about regional enrichment opportunities for students,” said Azano. “It’s exciting to be able to provide answers.”

Schools in geographically remote areas tend to have inadequate staffing levels for gifted resource instruction. Further, traditional practices in identifying students for gifted education often require students to meet exceptionally high standards for eligibility, resulting in schools missing opportunities to cultivate talent, Azano added.

Azano said the initiative aims to increase the number of students eligible for gifted education services in high-poverty rural Appalachian schools. She will partner with rural schools to provide resources to establish and sustain gifted education opportunities.

The Appalachian Rural Talent Initiative also involves building a website to provide a virtual opportunity for teachers and administrators in rural places to share ideas and support student talent. Rachelle Kuehl, a postdoctoral associate and project manager with expertise in literacy instruction, is leading the website-building effort.

“Rachelle is fine-tuning the curriculum to specifically reflect central Appalachian places,” said Azano. “We found that rural students respond well to a curriculum tailored to include place-based literature and writing opportunities that allowed students to express how place is central to their identities.”

Azano said Kuehl is also compiling a master list of picture books, novels, nonfiction material, and poetry that teachers can use to make in-school learning more relevant for rural students. This resource will be publicly available on the website.

The team is working with the National Rural Education Association to pinpoint school districts that could most benefit from working with the Appalachian Rural Talent Initiative in the pilot year.

“I have spent most of my life living and working in rural communities,” said Kristin Gehsmann, director of the School of Education. “I am pleased to see faculty and students in our school partner with members of rural communities, to learn from and with them.”

Azano said her passion for rural education stems from her childhood.

“My parents were both first-generation high school graduates and did everything they could to support my educational pursuits while also telling me to never forget my roots,” said Azano.

“Popular media and dominant narratives don’t always cast rural people or places in a favorable way,” Azano added, “Like all places, rural communities are complex and not without challenges, but young people deserve to see that their rural communities have value. I am hopeful these programs will support youth talent development while also promoting a critical approach to place.”

Written by Andrew Adkins