|By supporting learning that grounds itself firmly in the local sense of place, the Rural Challenge aims to make school the engine of community renewal, and vice versa.
What Rural Schools Can Teach Urban Systems
VOLUME 1, NUMBER 2
|ONE TEACHER I know likes to imagine a TV game show that would set down its contestants in a McDonald's anywhere in the world and challenge them to name its location before the buzzer sounds. The very difficulty of the task would make a rude reminder, he observes, of what we are losing in our headlong rush to a world economy-the countless, precious idiosyncratic differences that tell us where we are, and who we are, and why it matters what we do together in that place.
In out-of-the-way communities around the country, a steady conversation around that theme is emerging, which challenges conventional wisdom about the relation of school and community, the purpose of academic studies, and the past and future of the nation itself.
And though it has begun in rural places-whose students have long been marginalized, dismissed, or in a few cases scooped into the mainstream of "success" away from home-the ferment has found like-minded friends in central cities, who are struggling with the very same issues.
"When schools focus only on how education benefits the individual, they become the enemy of community," says Paul Nachtigal, who with Toni Haas directs the national Rural Challenge from a
mountain perch in tiny Granby, Colorado. "They educate young people to leave, and so fulfill the prophecy that these places are doomed to poverty, decline, and despair."
Through funding a laboratory of living examples that show otherwise, the Rural Challenge intends instead to rally communities to reinvent their schools as engines of renewal for the public good. Launched with a $50 million matching grant from Walter Annenberg, it has scouted out some of the most forward-thinking activists this country has to offer, in some of its least accessible places.
A school in Howard, South Dakota has created a community resource center, for example, where students and other citizens archive materials on the area's rich history, environment, and culture and take political action to save the region's family farms.
In remote Alaskan villages, tribal elders from five ethnic groups are teaching children and educators how native "ways of knowing" can infuse profound traditions into the study of science, mathematics, social and cultural studies, language, and literature.
Students in Cedar Bluff, Alabama have launched a thriving computer assembly and software development business that takes orders from the public, serves a network of rural schools, and has won a grant to connect the entire county's school system.
People in each of these small communities gathered their resources and organized their schools so as to reclaim rural places and traditions facing economic or political eradication. But in a hard-pressed, ethnically divided section of Brooklyn, the same impulse united students and other residents against a toxic waste incinerator that threatened their neighborhood, and a vital community school grew out of their effort.
In fact, most of the policies and practices that distinguish Rural Challenge sites make perfect sense in urban settings as well. But the philosophy of this initiative goes well beyond the innovative practices common in systems today-multi-age classrooms, site-based management, interdisciplinary studies, peer tutoring, and communities as learning resources-that have long been staples of rural schooling.
It reaches instead to the heart of cultural survival-the tough business of maintaining identity, autonomy, and pride in any community marginalized by the mainstream. To succeed, the Rural Challenge vision requires school people to join forces with others in the place they inhabit, and work through their disagreements toward the common good. And a look at this vision's six salient elements can shed useful light on other reform efforts, no matter how far from the fields they might be taking place. (See sidebar, page 3.)
|Who's Really Rural? Ten Ways to Tell
|AS AMERICA'S LANDSCAPE absorbs and reflects the urban influences of television and a global look-alike economy, definitions of "rural" that are based on demographic data alone tend to falter. (If a place has under 2,500 people or lies away from major population centers, the U.S. Census calls it rural.) An informal survey of those who are thinking and writing about rural issues turns the following large and small indicators of whether a place is "genuinely rural"*
1. Has the local newspaper started to charge a fee to run obituaries?
2. Do the resources of the surrounding landscape provide a sufficient level of living to its inhabitants? Does the food on the table come from nearby?
3. Are patterns of relationship in the economic community based on intimacy and trust, not just mere convenience? Can you get a loan in town to start a business there?
4. Does shame still serve as a social mechanism for enforcing behavior?
* Note: You're really rural if you say no to number 1, yes to 2-10.
|5. Is there a volunteer fire department and ambulance squad? (Are students on it?)
6. Does the school serve as a primary gathering spot for local events?
7. Does the community foster events that remind inhabitants of its collective past, so that the common culture may inform their cooperative actions in the present? (Is there a parade on the Fourth? An ethnic festival?)
8. Do local people work with a county extension service? Is there a 4-H? A grange?
9. Do people still meet face to face in work groups, town meetings, or other civic structures to discuss and solve the problems of the community?
10. Do people stay in the community? What percentage of residents still represents several generations of local kin?
||STAYING SMALL has profound benefits, country schools have found, for example. Small schools perform better than large schools on most measures-including school grades, test scores, honor roll membership, subject-area achievement, and assessment of higher order thinking skills-and equal to them on the rest, says a recent digest by Kathleen Cotton of over 100 research studies, published by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Oregon. Along every measure of student attitudes-attendance and graduation rates, extracurricular participation, attachment to school, disciplinary incidents, and more-students in small schools also do better. This holds true for both elementary and secondary students of all ability levels and in all kinds of settings (though many of the studies of the effectiveness of small schools derive from rural schools).
The relative lack of bureaucracy in small school communities supports the Challenge's beliefs about teaching and learning (see sidebar, page 8), and the first year of the Annenberg initiative has seen huge comprehensive schools in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia move toward breaking into small learning communities. They gain a more personal context in which teachers know smaller numbers of students, often teaching as generalists rather than specialists, as rural teachers in small schools have done for generations.
But even sparsely populated rural communities must struggle to maintain small schools these days; economic pressures for consolidation have affected almost every rural district in the nation, U.S. Education Department data show. Between 1940 and 1990, the number of U.S. elementary and secondary public schools declined 69 percent-from approximately 200,000 to 62,037 - despite a 70 percent increase in the student population. The 117,108 school districts that existed in 1940 have experienced dramatic consolidation, decreasing by 87 percent, to 15,367. And the largest schools can generally be found within the largest districts.
At the same time, for the first time in 100 years, rural populations are increasing. Today, some 22,400 rural schools represent 16.7 percent of this country's public school students, more than a third of public schools, and the majority of its districts.
Those students live in isolated areas with few neighbors, and whether they get their schooling close to home or go on a long bus ride to a regional facility can have an enormous effect-not only on their ability to participate in the school-related activities that keep their interest high, but on the character and sustainability of the rural community itself.
The school is often a small town's major employer, for example; when it closes to merge with another, those jobs disappear in a major economic setback. The social setback does just as much harm: schools provide the activity center of most towns, for adults as well as children. Adults in their home town miss the presence of kids who are bused elsewhere; and they also worry that as ties with their town loosen, young graduates will go elsewhere for good.
Parents in five small Colorado communities grew so concerned about all this that they got permission to convert their elementary schools into a network of five public charter schools, most serving fewer than 50 children.
"These are all schools 'born and raised' by our communities," says Ginny Jaramillo, who helped launch the effort. "And we all want to return to them some measure of value beyond meeting educational objectives." Townspeople spent thousands of hours, for example, restoring the historic school building in Marble, an old quarry town, for the 21 students in kindergarten through grade seven. That school is now the only heated meeting place in town; students publish the town's only newspaper every month; and the public uses the school's library and networked computer with student assistance.
SIX LESSONS FROM RURAL SCHOOLS
Small schools boost student learning.
Place in the curriculum connects kids to who they are and why they need to learn.
Civic life is inseparable from the work of schools, and vice versa.
Two cultures often meet in school, and kids need to succeed in both.
School and civic policies can help or harm student learning.
Stories about people make powerful and authentic documentation of school change.