In her poem “Where I’m From,” Appalachian writer George Ella Lyon articulates the profound interconnectedness of place and self-identity. In rural communities, according to Amy Price Azano, this interconnectedness is a source of cultural wealth.

As the founding director of Virginia Tech’s new Center for Rural Education, Azano has studied how structural challenges related to poverty and educational inequities can adversely affect rural schools and communities. As a first-generation college student from a rural community, Azano, also an associate professor in the School of Education in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, understands these challenges both professionally and personally, but also believes in the power and promise of rural schooling.

“I am very pleased that Virginia Tech recently established the Center for Rural Education and to have the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment serve as its administrative home,” said Karen Roberto, University Distinguished Professor and executive director of the institute. “Amy is a nationally recognized expert in rural education research, practices, and partnerships, and I am confident that the center will thrive under her leadership and positively impact rural schools and communities in Virginia and beyond.”

Azano proposed the center to be a catalyst for transdisciplinary research and outreach by leveraging resources across the university and state to address equity challenges while also advocating for place-conscious educational policy at local, state, and national levels.

“Even state and federal policies written with the best intentions can be placeless and not necessarily take into account the unique ways rural schools interact with remote geographies, local economies, and communities,” said Azano. If a community does not have access to nearby health care, for example, then meeting state mandates for children with special needs can become a particular challenge. Accessing broadband internet, as observed with remote schooling during COVID-19, serves as another rural-specific challenge that will impact policy development. 

Context influences every part of schooling and resources, such as per pupil expenditures, vary widely across the Commonwealth of Virginia. According to Azano, the center has the potential to increase visibility of longstanding challenges in rural places while also amplifying models of excellence and innovation stemming from rural schools. 

Place matters. “Rural education is too often described in deficit ways or as places to leave,” said Azano, whose goal for the center is to shift that perception. With place-conscious initiatives, she wants to ensure that rural students, teachers, and communities see their value reflected in the curriculum. “Rural places are not just places to leave; they are places to invest in.”

The Center for Rural Education responds to the university’s land-grant mission and its tripartite mission of research, teaching, and outreach.

“Understanding the nexus of culture, history, economics, education, policy, and place helps us better understand the assets of a community and address opportunity gaps," said Kristin Gehsmann, director of the School of Education. "When educational communities thrive, everyone benefits.” The center is partnering with the School of Education to develop a graduate certificate in rural education and opportunities for provisionally licensed teachers to earn their teaching credentials.  

The center also plans to support community outreach efforts by partnering with existing rural-facing entities. Julie Walters Steele, director of the Reynolds Homestead, expects to foster a meaningful relationship with the center. “Through our partnerships with area schools, the Reynolds Homestead has the ability to collaborate with the center to create a variety of meaningful experiential learning opportunities,” said Steele.

Jon Catherwood-Ginn, associate director of programming at the Moss Arts Center, who has previously worked with Azano, said, “We recognize the continual need to better understand the unique assets and needs of rural youth and educators so we can develop tailored and relevant programs and resources.”

Cathy Sutphin, associate director of youth, families, and health for  Virginia Cooperative Extension, which has offices in 107 localities in Virginia, supported the center proposal by describing it as having the potential to be “the hub of the wheel” for the many rural-focused efforts at Virginia Tech “to become more intentional in assessing need, obtaining funding, and providing high quality programming.”

In addition, the center is supported by Outreach and International Affairs, which recently supported the center’s inaugural Rural Education Summit. Guru Ghosh, vice president of Outreach and International Affairs, stated his confidence in having Azano serve as director. “We believe that her leadership, expertise, and collaborative approach is necessary to advance and coordinate rural-led initiatives across Virginia Tech and the commonwealth.”

Azano is clear about the role of the center. She is not looking to “fix” problems in rural education, but to work with and partner with rural schools and communities to address opportunity gaps and support innovation. “I hope the center becomes known throughout Virginia Tech, the region, and the state as a resource, collaborator, and community partner,” Azano said.

The Center for Rural Education welcomes donations to support its research and outreach with rural schools and communities.

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