Annenberg Participants Reflect in the Wilds

By Robert C. Johnston — July 09, 1997 2 min read

Last week’s first-ever gathering for the Annenberg Rural Challenge was, well, distinctly rural. It wasn’t even called a conference. The three-day event, which drew nearly 300 participants to talk about the $50 million matching-grant program, was called a “summer rendezvous.”

Rather than meet in Denver, the group met in Granby, Colo., two hours north west. The Rural Challenge’s national office operate out of a former hunting lodge in the small town. And instead of large sessions, participants strolled outside in pairs and met with strangers in “home groups” to discuss ways to link school and communities--one of the program’s major goals.

There were no big-name speakers featured at the event, and journal-writing was mandatory.

“Most conference assume that the people coming are vessels that need to be filled,” said Toni Haas, the program’s co-national director. “We set this up to create chance for them to share what they know.”

The Rural Challenge is part of a $500 million commitment to public education launched by philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg in 1993.

Despite the gathering’s reflective nature, there was serious interest in a new evaluation of the 2-year-old program, which seeks to strengthen ties between rural communities and young people, often through schools. Led by the Harvard University graduate school of education, the evaluation will extend through 2000.

A group of “field-research associates” in eight of the program’s 25 project sites is already working with Harvard-based coordinators on surveys, interviews, and data collection. The goal, said one member of the evaluating team, “is to see what works and what doesn’t work.” A preliminary report is scheduled to be released this fall.

The evaluation site and host states are: Tillamook County Education Consortium, Oregon.; Program for Rural and Community Renewal, South Dakota; School at the Center, Nebraska; Breaking New Ground in Appalachian Education, Kentucky and West Virginia; Integrating Indigenous Knowledge in Alaska Education; Texas Interfaith Education Fund; Pacers’ Small School Collaborative, Alabama; and a project in Selbourne, Pa

Student presentations on hometown projects were among the gathering’s highlights. For example, “More Than Just Cheese” in Cabot, Vt., pairs 20 students with local businesses for the summer to show them that there’s more to the town and its job opportunities than the local creamery.

“Most people think that if they’re going to do something, they have to go to an urban area, but this program shows them they can have a life there,” said Palmer Legare, a senior at the 250-student Cabot High School.

Cody Minor, a freshman at the 200-student Idalia School in eastern Colorado, described a nature center his school is building. If all goes well, students will grow tomatoes and sell them to local grocers, as well as provide worms for visiting fishermen. Flowers already grow on the half acre plot, which Mr. Minor hopes will be a popular visiting site for residents of a local senior citizens’ center.

A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week