When schools are abandoned, communities lose a valuable asset. This school in Vermont, Illinois, is no longer helping students or its community.

[imgcontainer right] [img:Vermontcreeper.jpg] [source]Tim Collins[/source] When schools are abandoned, communities lose a valuable asset. This school in Vermont, Illinois, is no longer helping students or its community. [/imgcontainer]

When you walk into an old rural high school, it’s easy to get some sense of the community’s history from the black and white senior class photos lining the main hall.

You’ll probably notice that the graduating classes were small, except perhaps in the 1960s and 1970s, during the baby boom. Now the classes are small again, as they were 80 or 90 years ago.

Seems to me that small classes worked fairly well in the past. Why not now? What is so scary about smaller school districts that they are driven to consolidate by state and local forces?

Consolidation promises that bigger is better. Larger schools supposedly increase educational value per student and offer more opportunities for learning.

Despite the good intentions of consolidation supporters, theirs is a narrow economic argument that tends to isolate the school as an institution from the well being of both the children and the community. 

Consolidation might make sense where merged districts are relatively small. But it is outmoded in contemporary rural America, given continuing population decline across wide swaths of the already depopulated countryside. Consolidation proponents are asking the wrong questions and pushing the wrong option for children and communities.

Let’s make consolidation the absolute last resort. Instead, let’s recognize that merging districts with financial problems and falling enrollment will not make them better off financially and educationally. Let’s focus on what’s really important — the resources (financial and otherwise) that strong community and school leaders can leverage to improve the well being of children.

It is true that without good school leadership, small schools do not necessarily guarantee high-quality education, although the research does suggest that small classes and schools tend to benefit students.

The main issue is a tradeoff between seemingly lower costs now with consolidation and the longer-run likelihood that smaller, community-based schools can ultimately improve lives, citizenship, and productivity of students when they become adults.

Leaders of small rural schools need to ask different questions:

What about education of children in and for the community?

How can we be creative in using the school to help develop and nurture homegrown opportunities in a global economy, to build our community’s future?

What about the school, not only as an amenity, but also as a vital force in the community?[imgcontainer] [img:schoolconsolidation.jpg] [source]Rural School and Community Trust[/source] Schools and school districts have been getting larger for the past several generations. [/imgcontainer]

The reality of rural America today is that most communities are pretty much left to fend for themselves. Rural school consolidation creates a simplistic solution to what may or may not be a problem, but then creates another problem. Consolidation equals yet another disinvestment in rural places.

Moving beyond the lure of consolidation is not easy. Putting this idea aside means rural schools need to be out front in creating community leadership. They need to empower teachers, children, and parents in continuous, child-centered school improvement. At the same time, they need to tap into the rest of the community — not only for money, but also for the time, talents, and energy to engage citizens, teachers, and children in the classroom and in the community.

Rural school leadership involves marshaling financial and nonfinancial resources as a creative investment in future community leaders, the children. Child-centered leaders are primarily concerned with efficient – that is, effective – schools that prepare children for community life.

Yes, skills and knowledge are important, but so are physical and emotional health and a safe place where children can develop roots. Small, rural community schools are not only about the money and the curriculum. They value children as essential to the future of a healthy community. Rural community education is a long-run investment in nurturing children, who are future community leaders. 

Rural communities that are doing well have leadership with a certain “it,” an intangible combination of personalities — an ability to cooperate, accept differences, remain flexible, and respect knowledge, along with an unlimited supply of creativity and optimism.

These qualities lead to an understanding that the global economy is not only navigable, but can be tapped to improve long-run community well being. Rural community schools need to be a source of intellectual and social leadership that builds excellence, capacity for community adaptability, success, and sustainability in a dynamic world. 

Consolidation robs communities of important assets: their children and their schools. Consolidation may seem efficient based on pupil-to-teacher ratios, costs per pupil, and the promise of improved curriculum and higher test scores. But it is hardly efficient, given the costs of transportation and the time children spend away from the school and their families.

School and community leaders who promote consolidation may think they have the well-being of children in mind, but their emphasis on per-unit cost treats students as if they are assembly-line products and not children with differing needs, personalities, and dreams.

Rural schools have provided their communities with doctors, lawyers, ministers, merchants, farmers, and laborers for generations. The notion of schools at the center of rural communities is hardly new. Nor is the idea of child-centered education.

Conditions across rural America now make the case for small, community schools even more compelling.

Rural schools centered on children and community can build lifelong ties between people and places. Besides building community, a task that requires considerable patience, they can be, with the right leadership, a significant financial and social investment in the well being of children educated for the community. 

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

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