Rural school districts: Challenges, opportunities, and LENA


map of the u.s. with Nevada, Illinois, and South Carolina highlighted

Let’s put a few things into perspective:

Humboldt County, Nevada, has a land area of just under 10,000 square miles. That makes it roughly the size of the state of Vermont.

Vermont, far from a model of dense, urban hustle and bustle, has a population of over 600,000 people. Humboldt County, conversely, has a population of just over 17,000.

In other words, it’s rural.

“Rural” is a word that doesn’t have a very precise definition. And the definition it does have — the Census Bureau defines rural as any population, housing, or territory NOT in an urban area — applies to pretty much the entirety of the U.S.

However you slice it, though, Humboldt County is rural rural. Outside of the town of Winnemucca, where Interstates 80 and 95 intersect, the landscape is made up of two-lane highways and dirt roads cutting through deserts. (If Winnemucca rings a bell, by the way, it might be because you’ve heard Johnny Cash sing “I’ve Been Everywhere.”)

That makes it an extreme version of the kind of community where LENA programs can make — and are making — a big difference for families. We’re talking about rural communities that are long on community spirit and drive, even if they might be running short on population — and, importantly, access to educational opportunity.

“We’re not an impoverished community, but we have what I call ‘educational poverty.’”

Colby Corbitt is the principal of Winnemucca Grammar School, one of three elementary schools serving Humboldt County. That statement — “We’re not an impoverished community, but we have what I call ‘educational poverty’” — is part of how he describes his town. It’s a striking statement for anyone to make, let alone the principal of an elementary school.

rural landscape of Humboldt County, Nevada

“Humboldt River Valley North of Winnemucca, Nevada,” by Ken Lund, available under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Every rural community has its defining features. One of Humboldt County’s is the prevalence of the mining industry there. A large percentage of the county’s population — around 1,800 people — works in direct support of the largest gold mines in North America. Their average salary is over $125,000. As Corbitt points out, it’s hard to foreground the value of education when advanced education isn’t a vital ingredient to financial security.

“Families have never gone beyond high school, but they’re making an exceptional wage,” he said. “They don’t really push school on their kids, and they don’t get a lot of time with their kids.”

Bringing LENA aboard

In 2017, Corbitt happened to be watching the NBC Nightly News and saw a story about Providence Talks, the Bloomberg Philanthrophies-funded initiative that brings LENA programs to families throughout Providence, Rhode Island. He was intrigued, and he set out to learn more. It became what he calls a “passion project.” Four years later, his community is implementing a LENA Program of its own. (Providence Talks, by the way, has now been replicated in five additional cities.)

Corbitt’s teams has recruited 10 families from the two child care centers in Winnemucca for a pilot LENA Home program. Plans are already in place to scale up to 30 families next year. The district is using Title I funding for the initial program, with the intention of using ESSER funding for future iterations.

“One goal is to increase the time they spend with their kids, to increase the time they spend talking with their kids, and teaching them the value of education,” Corbitt said.

He wants to see increased school readiness among children entering kindergarten, and he wants that increased school readiness to translate into improved literacy skills for his school.

“All of my vision is long-term,” he said, “and I know it starts early.”

Just as it starts early for every individual child, so too can the most impactful programs start small.

Other rural school districts are adopting LENA programs, too.

Just like Humboldt County, two school districts in South Carolina and Illinois have also recognized demographic challenges and brought in LENA Grow, LENA Start, and LENA Home to contribute to lasting solutions. Read more by clicking below.

Download PDF


The LENA Team is a dedicated group of professionals who are passionate about increasing awareness of the importance of early interactive talk. We are statisticians, speech-language pathologists, curriculum specialists, engineers, and linguists.

Related Posts

Please Give Us Your Thoughts

All comments are reviewed before being posted.

LENA is committed to protecting and respecting your privacy.

You may unsubscribe from these communications at any time.