Rural Appalachian Culture and Educational Neglect: A Community Needs Assessment

Rural Appalachian Culture and Educational Neglect: A Community Needs Assessment


Universal education is deeply ingrained in American history and values. Americans have long identified education as the path to individual economic and social mobility. As such, America’s public education institutions have laws intended to mandate equal access to opportunity and advancement for all of America’s children. Unfortunately, some Appalachian communities continue to see a disproportionate number of children fail to fully benefit from a public school education.

In New York State (NYS), educational neglect is defined as occurring when a parent or person legally responsible for the care of a child of compulsory school age fails to ensure the child is engaged in an appropriate education program and, as a result, the child is harmed or is in imminent danger of becoming harmed (NYS Office of Children and Family Services). This paper will first review the history of compulsory education laws and efforts to enforce them. It will then review the current status of the problem in Appalachia and the specific history and cultural background that sustains the problem. The paper will end with a discussion of regional barriers and strengths that need to be considered when planning interventions to better engage Appalachian youth in their high schools.

History of Educational Neglect

In the United States, mandatory education laws were first enacted in the late 19th century. By 1918,  every state had a law to compel parents to provide their minor children with an appropriate education (Larson, Zuel, & Swanson, 2011). As the century moved on, child labor laws removed most children from coal mines and. By the 1930’s, the industrialized American economy was creating an increased demand for well-educated, skilled labor and states began to develop a law enforcement infrastructure to fully enforce their compulsory education laws. By the 1970’s, a significant number of American youth were incarcerated for status offenses related to school attendance (Larson, Zuel, & Swanson, 2011).

During the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s and 1970’s, American activists called attention to the problem of incarcerated juvenile status offenders. In 1974, the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (P.L. 93-415) redefined school attendance problems as being the result of parental neglect (Larson, Zuel, & Swanson, 2011) and child welfare agencies became the institutions responsible for enforcing mandatory attendance laws.

Description of the Community

In 1965, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) identified Appalachia as a geographic region covering 420 counties across 13 states (Denham, 2015). The population of Appalachia is primarily White, non-Hispanic with two-thirds of the region’s counties reporting less than a 10% minority population (Pollard & Jacobsen, 2011).

The people of the Appalachian region overwhelmingly identify as Christian and Christian and Calvinistic themes permeate the culture (Gore & Wilburn, 2010). Hard work is virtuous, but not as a means of changing one’s social class. Instead, Appalachians embrace a more fatalistic worldview that teaches each person has a predetermined destiny (Phillips, 2007). As a result, the culture values contentment with one’s circumstances over economic achievement. These beliefs have led to an Appalachian social structure that emphasizes social equality over social mobility (Mei & Russ, 2007).

Risk Factors

A review of academic literature shows experiences related to educational neglect and truancy need to be viewed as part of a process that leads to school dropout rather than seeing school dropout as a single event (Samuel & Burger, 2020). Research shows that when students report they do not feel like they belong in the school social environment there is an increased risk of eventual school dropout (Hausmann, Schofield, & Woods, 2007).

Current Status and Indicators

With high school dropout rates almost twice the national average, educational neglect; truancy; and school avoidance are major social problems in the Appalachian region (Gore & Wilburn, 2010). From 2004 to 2008, Appalachian Allegany County, NY saw an 84% increase in the number of Educational Neglect reports registered against families in the county (Vera Institute, 2009). In the United States as a whole, over 87% of students complete high school. In some parts of Appalachia, high school completion is as low as 58% (ARC, 2019).

The consequences of failing to complete high school are serious and long lasting. Young adults without a high school diploma report a lower quality of life and are at increased risk of joblessness, criminal behavior, and single parenthood (Morrow & Villodas, 2018).

Community Barriers and Strengths

According to Kozlowski (2016), regional Appalachian family values often fundamentally conflict with the middle-class values that influence public education policy and curriculum. This conflict presents itself in the interactions of Appalachian students and parents with teachers and administrators in the school system. Behavior patterns identified by the schools as truant or neglectful may actually be discord between regional Appalachian cultural values and the values of the larger culture that governs school policy. For example, Appalachian communities value equality in their social structures while schools emphasize education as a means to increase socioeconomic status. Appalachian spiritual beliefs around fatalism, or predetermined destiny, conflict with educational values that teach students that they can change their future by studying hard in school today. The conflict between Appalachian cultural beliefs and the values of the school system may contribute to students’ feelings of not belonging in the school community and increase the likelihood of school avoidance and truancy.

Appalachian culture is not without strengths. While Appalachians are poorer and have less formal education than Americans as a whole (Gore & Wilburn, 2010), the people have a remarkably deep sense of responsibility to each other and to their land (Obermiller & Maloney, 2016). Appalachian culture is rich with traditions like hunting, fishing, gardening, and food preservation (Grove, 2015). Each generation passes these skills on to the next. These traditions reinforce the value of relationships between the old and the young while teaching practical survival skills and respect for the region’s natural resources. By incorporating local values and knowledge in the academic curriculum, schools may be able to better engage Appalachian students.


For Appalachian children and families, the public school system may not be focused on delivering a culturally appropriate curriculum that builds on regional values and strengths. As a result, in some parts of Appalachia, reports of educational neglect are increasing and high school drop out rates are far above the national average. In many cases, truancy and educational neglect may be the result of the public school system’s failure to reflect the values, knowledge, and beliefs—the culture—of the children and families in the school district.  Local school districts could better engage children and families by building curriculums that focus on important local values, traditions, and history.



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