Learning To Survive

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Blending a community and its past with the classroom may mean hope for the future of small towns across America.

Howard, S.D.

Standing among the splintered timber and waist-high grass that is the ghost town of Vilas, S.D., 16-year-old Nick Wolf peers into the past.

Just over a century ago, Vilas was full of hope. It had 500 residents, two banks, a pool hall, and two grain elevators. But in 1882, Vilas lost its bid for the county seat. In 1936, the high school closed. Next, the two railroad tracks that intersected in town were abandoned, and Vilas' fate was sealed.

Wolf turns his back on the chilly fall wind blasting at his orange- and-black letterman's jacket and contemplates the future of his hometown, just six miles away. There is talk of moving the county seat out of Howard to a town 20 miles away. The shift could cripple Wolf's community, which is already fighting to retain businesses and residents.

Nodding his head slowly, he concedes that his chance to run the family farm could be lost if Howard withers away. When he stops nodding, concentration gathers like a storm in his crystal-blue eyes. "But I don't think it will," he says. "People are working to make sure it doesn't."

Wolf is pinning his hopes on teachers and classmates at Howard High School, which recently became a part of the Annenberg Rural Challenge, a national effort to strengthen rural schools and their communities. Rural Challenge schools create curricula specific to the history and resources of their communities. And schools become the centerof the communities--places where students, educators, and residents come together to study and address local concerns.

For example, Howard students are researching community spending patterns, and housing problems of senior citizens. They also want to help local retailers by selling them low-priced produce from the high school's new orchard. Wolf hopes these efforts will revive his town and encourage his friends to continue living here.

Through grants and technical help, the Rural Challenge is planting similar seeds across the country. There are 27 Rural Challenge programs in 250 schools from Alaska to Maine.

And interest is growing, especially in towns with struggling economies and shrinking populations. "This is about the simultaneous renewal of schools and communities," says Larry Rogers, the associate director of the Program for Rural School and Community Renewal at South Dakota State University in Brookings, which oversees the state's Rural Challenge programs. "Schools are not just bit players in somebody else's drama, but schools are engines of change."

"The difference between success and failure is vision funded by a small grant."

Larry Rogers, S.D. state university

In 1993, retired publisher and diplomat Walter H. Annenberg pledged $500 million to improve America's schools. But that effort, which became the Annenberg Challenge, focused on reform in urban schools.

Rural school advocates lobbied for a rural education counterpart of between $10 million and $50 million. The Annenberg Foundation announced early in 1995 that it would provide $50 million over five years in matching grants for such a program. It was the biggest private investment ever in rural schools.

"Going from $10 million to $50 million was one of the most important if not the most important step toward looking at rural education in the United States," says Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota. "It immediately vaulted the importance and visibility of rural education in a way not done before."

The program was launched that fall when Paul Nachtigal and his wife, Toni Haas, both longtime rural educators with national research and foundation experience, agreed to lead it.

There are 27 Rural Challenge programs in 250 schools from Alaska to Maine.

Working from a former hunting den in the Rocky Mountain town of Granby, Colo., the couple oversees a network of projects in 30 states. So far, $20 million has been awarded, half of which has gone to low-income sites. A third of the programs involve predominantly minority communities.

"We're getting the right ideas out at the right time with the right people," Nachtigal says. "It's stimulating wonderful conversation and giving people permission to talk about issues that matter and make sense to them."

While some large established programs initially were funded, the Rural Challenge now looks for small but promising projects. Participation is by invitation only. Nachtigal and Haas coordinate 10 regional field workers, or "stewards," who scout potential projects and promote the program's objectives.

"We're about reform, and we're serious," says Belinda Laumbah, a professor of education at New Mexico Highlands University who is on the Rural Challenge's board of directors. "One of our goals is not to do business as usual. That's why there are no requests for proposals."

And the Rural Challenge is not about making students better test-takers or encouraging schools to see academic standards as education's Holy Grail. It wants students, through their schools, to become active, knowledgeable citizens. Says Haas, "People are hungry to talk about what kind of life we want for our children, rather than a technocratic approach to improve achievement by five points in five years."

"There's more to education than what's in the textbook on page 28. ... If we fail, we will have gone down fighting to do what's right."

Raymond Parry, Teacher, Howard, S.D.

One of the program's rising stars is the 567-student Howard school district, which sits about 50 miles northwest of Sioux Falls on the eastern edge of the state. Working through its two elementary schools and one secondary school, Howard students, teachers, and town leaders are trying to create a community where young people will live, start businesses, and raise families.

It is a bold effort, says Jim Lentz, the school district's superintendent. But, he says, such are the demands of survival in today's rural America. Howard is the seat of government for Miner County, a 456- square-mile section of rolling earth that has been as blessed with rich farmland as it is cursed with bitterly cold winters. Once home to more than 8,000 people and eight towns, Miner County now has three towns and 2,862 people. Fifty-three percent of the county's households have annual incomes below $20,000. Two years ago, the district had 600 students.

"Not everyone embraces [the project] because change is tough," Lentz says in a soft voice that contrasts with his bearlike frame. "But I tell them to think about it this way: 'The school and community are so tightly linked that if one goes down, so does the other. And that means jobs.'"

The district begins with the credo that through active democracy, nothing is inevitable. Here's how the philosophy is applied:

  • English students read about the decline of family farms in America and then write to elected officials. U.S. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., responded last year with a personal visit to Howard High.
  • Students will help design a center where senior citizens can live and participate in a variety of activities.
  • Art students spruce up downtown by painting seasonal artwork on the windows of local businesses.
  • Students will market apples and strawberries as early as next summer from their new two-acre orchard behind the high school.
  • The district has applied for a $65,000 federal grant to build a greenhouse on campus. Local gardeners would help students develop a wholesale plant and flower business.

One of Howard's most dramatic projects was a county cash-flow study started two years ago with a one-time, $600 Rural Challenge planning grant.

While some large established programs initially were funded, the Rural Challenge now looks for small but promising projects.

Howard High School vocational education instructor Raymond Parry led the project. Working with community members, Parry and his students developed a survey of spending patterns and sent it to 1,000 residents. They had a stunning 64 percent response rate.

They used computers to analyze results, which included individual federal income-tax data. Next, they convened local business leaders and published reports in local papers that said Miner County could boost retail sales by nearly $2.4 million a year if residents would spend 10 percent more of their disposable income locally.

In the year that followed, those sales rose 27 percent over the previous year, bringing nearly $30,000 in new revenue to the county.

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