How One Rural Community Is Addressing the Challenges of Resource Scarcity and Geographic Isolation

Educational challenges are abundant wherever resources are scarce. When policy makers and education leaders attempt to address those barriers, they tend to focus on children living in urban poverty. However children growing up in rural poverty confront the same challenges of scarcity multiplied by the fierce grip of geographic isolation. For 6.5 million of our country’s rural families – including 1.5 million children – poverty has been entrenched for generations, with a devastating impact on health, education, and prosperity.  For the past four years, Scholastic has been piloting a program called Discover Together, designed to bridge that isolation and build resilience in Grundy County, TN.

Developed in collaboration with the Yale Child Study Center, Sewanee: The University of the South, and local partners, Discover Together offers resources to increase social connectedness, to build pride in community, and to use the power of story across generations.  Through a multi-faceted approach, Discover Together has had a powerful impact on one of the poorest counties in rural Appalachia. Last week, that impact was recognized by Center for the Study of Social Policy in a report titled Strengthening Supports for Young Parents and their Children: A Focus on Low-Income Rural and Suburban Families. The report spotlights Discover Together among six promising programs throughout the country that are innovative in addressing the needs of rural and suburban families living in poverty. 

Discover Together started with a small-scale attempt to build resilience through a summer camp that paired community field trips with books.  Although the program was enthusiastically received, it quickly became clear that the community was clamoring for more. Guided by continuous feedback from the community, Discover Together expanded in scope and reach to answer evolving needs. Soon the Discover Together Family Co-Op arose for caregivers and their young children with a place-based curriculum that addressed the development of the whole family. “Discover Together gave us somewhere to go, to have something to do, and spend quality time with our children and other parents – especially during those long winter months,” one parent explained. Participants discovered each other as a key source of support, and began to explore their community as a place of pride. 

Today, Discover Together features an integrated system comprised of a family co-op; a camp; and an after-school learning lab. All components share a methodology based on a multi-generational approach that targets caregivers and children simultaneously.  Centered around a literacy- and place-based curriculum, the programs are designed to enhance social connectedness as a mechanism for building resilience. "What was most helpful for me is that my daughter, an only child, got a chance to be around other kids her age,” one mother began. “In her sharing, and her learning to cooperate with other kids, it really helped her character at home. At the same time, the parents learned from each other.”

Discover Together has grown far beyond the partners’ initial vision, evolving according to the community’s strengths and needs. One grandparent talked about the changes she’s seen as Discover Together has grown. “The families get together outside of the co-op now. And now I know people I can turn to for support. I’ve started to look at Tracy City differently,” she added.

Approaches like Discover Together offer hope for its participants and a model for further innovation. Recently, Discover Together received a grant from the W.K.Kellogg Foundation to conduct a needs assessment and resource mapping to enable Discover Together to reach the hardest-to-reach families. That grant, along with this recognition from the Center for the Study of Social Policy, will deepen the program’s impact.  Emily Partin, Director of Discover Together and lifelong resident of Grundy County, appreciates this extra layer of support for local families.  “Tracy City has suffered so much over the years, leaving burnt out and boarded up buildings riddling the streets.  Programs like Discover Together are breathing new life into the town simply by bringing the families back out into the community,” Partin explained. “It is a beautiful rejuvenation process!”