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Keep Small Schools 'Relevant,' Rural Educators Told

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Manhattan, Kan.--At the 11th annual Rural and Small Schools Conference here last week, different speakers repeatedly delivered the same message: Rural America is changing, and so must rural education.

"Small towns are no longer--if they ever were--the kinds of places Norman Rockwell drew pictures of," said W. David Mulkey, a professor of food and resource economics at the University of Florida, and the keynote speaker at the conference.

Because of the increasingly global nature of the nation's economy, Mr. Mulkey argued, rural schools must play a more active role in their communities--by training students in job skills, offering adult-education courses, and using technology to link small communities to the world around them.

Scores of speakers echoed Mr. Mulkey's remarks throughout the two-day conference, which was held Oct. 30 and 31 at Kansas State University. Citing economic, political, and demographic trends, educators and scholars urged participants to seek new ways of "keeping small schools relevant," as one speaker put it.

About 400 rural-school administrators, teachers, and researchers attended the conference, which focused on schools as "economic and educational assets of rural communities."

According to the National Center for Education Information, a private research firm, about 55 percent of the nation's approximately 15,000 school districts enroll fewer than 1,000 students. Statistics compiled by the National Education Association show that more than 9 million students--about a quarter of the nation's total student population--attend "rural" schools.

But U.S. Census Bureau figures indicate that about 400,000 people will leave rural America this year. Many of them, conferees said last week, leave because of lack of economic opportunity.

A Broadened Focus

Consequently, they said, rural schools have had to broaden their focus to include community development, job training, and technological expertise.

With the added roles has come an expansion of the duties of rural-school teachers and administrators.

Walt Turner, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said "a whole new type of administrator" is required.

One Administrator's Efforts

Jean Lavid, superintendent of schools in Brewster, a town of about 350 in northwest Kansas, is among the educators trying to cope with such changes. The school there enrolls more than 140 students, about 40 of them in grades 9 to 12.

Ms. Lavid must deal with a host of problems common to rural-school administrators. The town's dwindling school enrollment decreased by 5 percent this year. Three farms, she said in an interview, have gone bankrupt in the past year, further damaging an ailing local economy.

And the pool of local talent is slowly evaporating; one of the top graduates of the high school recently entered West Point. Ms. Lavid said it was unlikely he would return to Brewster.

To increase the attractiveness of the school and better prepare students for the future, the school has instituted some unusual programs, Ms. Lavid said.

For example, it has added courses in German, Spanish, and French. One is taught by a faculty member, another comes via satellite through Oklahoma State University, and the third is a correspondence class with a college in Chicago.

But Ms. Lavid's most difficult task, she said, is trying to bring long-term stability--and consequently, a steady flow of school-age children--to Brewster.

Earlier this year, she worked closely with town officials in an attempt to persuade the regional educational cooperative to relocate in Brewster--a potential boon to the local economy. Together, they produced a brochure outlining the town's assets, visited managers of the cooperative, and presented a package of incentives to lure the co-op to Brewster.

"The whole process really brought people together, thinking about the assets of the community," she said.

But the cooperative chose to move to another town. It may be a long while, Ms. Lavid said, before the community makes another such concerted effort.

A 'Window of Opportunity'?

Throughout the conference, in small-group sessions and larger panel discussions, speakers offered examples of solutions to problems facing rural educators.

Larry R. Combs, a research associate at Kansas State, told of small towns that enlisted students to solve community-wide problems, such as a shortage of ambulance drivers.

Paul C. Nachtigal, co-director of the Rural Institute of the Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory, described how "clustering"--in which districts band together for instructional purposes, or to share other resources--can improve learning and help stave off consolidation.

A live broadcast of a high-school Spanish class, beamed via satellite to 72 schools in six states, showed how interactive video technology can improve curricula.

Such programs need an infusion of money to continue, conferees said. But it is often difficult, they added, to convince state and federal governments to fund them.

"Rural policy is often equated with agricultural policy, even though farming provides only 1 in 10 jobs in the rural United States," said Sylvia D. Parker, a senior associate at the Rural Institute. She said there was a need to form "a new coalition for rural America" to lobby the Congress and state legislatures.

Mr. Nachtigal said he senses a change in disposition. Citing "renewed interest at the national and state levels" in rural education, he told the audience at the conference's final panel session to seek legislative support for their efforts. "There's a window of opportunity we need to seize," he said.

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