mapping Edcouch Elsa 510

Students engage in community mapping, studying the strengths and deficits
of their region, Edcouch/Elsa, Texas
Photo: Llano Grande

What does “education” mean for rural areas in the twenty-first century? Is it only important for young people? Or do rural schools need a broader mission: to revitalize rural communities?

In the last century the U.S. was transformed from a nation of rural agrarianism to urban industrialism. Now the challenges for small towns are far greater; in the last generation, all places have become subject to a global economy — dynamic, largely unpredictable, and infinitely complex. Rural areas have, for the most part, been left behind in these great transitions. Though America was built on a foundation of rural communities, that foundation has crumbled.

The National Community Education Association (NCEA) meeting in Dallas, TX, last month, acknowledged these changes, meanwhile affirming the importance of rural areas.

cashton electric car

If education was important before, it is paramount now, both for rural children and for whole communities. The implications of global change are staggering. NCEA practitioners and academicians from England, Australia, and across the United States discussed the challenges rural areas face. They stressed that many small communities recognize what is happening and are moving to make education for children and adults a community focal point. There is cause for cautious optimism, especially in places that are taking the initiative to use their schools as community centers.

At Cashton (Wisconsin) High School, students pose with teacher Mike Schmitz and the chassis of their electric car
Photo: Vernon Electric Cooperative

The main “take home” from this meeting is the level of ferment all over the country and the world. People are struggling to readjust to the impacts of globalization and the recent economic downturn. Community-based rural schools are engaging their students in learning experiences that deal with significant local issues, such as small-business start ups; implementing agricultural and alternative energy projects; and environmental studies and restoration. These practical activities bridge the classroom with the community and the world. They put students in real-life situations where they can learn, understand, and apply theoretical knowledge to help make their home towns better.

Some rural schools are engaging in a mission to improve the quality of education and the quality of life locally; looking ahead, this same approach can preserve the school as a local institution. The strategy requires a long-run commitment, perhaps twenty or more years to have an impact. Community education that leads to development of the whole community requires patience in a time of persistent change.

In an increasingly urbanized world (now more than half the people in the world live in cities), it is all too easy for urban and suburban residents to forget their essential connection to the land. Globalization, by its very nature, alienates people from the land. But rural schools that are linked to their communities have retained this land-people connection, based on what I gleaned from the NCEA conference. Many rural residents understand that while the world seems to be leaving them behind, they still play a vital role in that world.

In an increasingly complex global economy, rural communities still provide food, fiber, energy, and workers. Equally important are the environmental significances of rural areas. Deforestation, mountaintop removal, soil erosion, and run off of pesticides and herbicides all have significant negative impacts on urban water supplies and food quality. In a world where human activities are outstripping the availability of global resources, rural community schools can promote needed stewardship.

However they’re defined around the world, whatever their local context, rural communities face a shared problem: they tend to be simultaneously exploited by and disconnected from the global economy. Even when these places seem forgotten, they remain sources for low-cost labor and natural resources. Rural school leaders need to teach their students ““ some of whom will go and some of whom will remain ““ to be stewards of their communities and surrounding environments. This is not an easy task, especially when there is significant absentee land ownership.

sudanese man in school

Sudanese refugee Yahwietor Mok greets students at Walton-Verona Elementary
(Campbell Co., Kentucky) after teaching them about his country
Photo: Cincinnati Enquirer

The work facing rural school leaders is huge. They need to build community support to become centers of developing human potential for sustaining their quality of life and protecting the environment. The task involves engaging the whole community in an investment for the future: the children. Schools will have to be creative and ingenious to build on the community’s resources and also respect the local environment. Rural schools need a curriculum that preserves and enhances the community’s assets, while recognizing the importance of global citizenship. Rural schools can take the lead in building a green local economy and setting an example for other places.

Further, students must get outside of the classroom to learn from their community, working with its residents, and developing a deeper understanding of what it means to be a citizen and a productive member of society in a particular environmental setting. Educators must bringing the community’s residents into the schools to share their knowledge and life experiences with students.

Rural schools should advocate for the highest quality access to the information highway. With limited resources, they need to collaborate with other community educational institutions, such as libraries and community colleges, to promote high levels of formal and informal education. Rural schools can and should becoming centers for lifelong education, supporting that all adults, especially workers and business owners.

This may seem a utopian vision. But it is a goal that many rural communities around the world are striving toward — the never-ending work of changing dreams into reality.

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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