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.

Rural schools might get more respect if they were evaluated less on their size and more on their academic performance.

Jim Mutziger, Howard's school board president and the general manager of the Howard Farmers Cooperative Association, saw revenue for his co-op increase $3.5 million in fiscal 1997 over the previous year.

He says that the co-op deserves credit for marketing itself better. But, he adds, "Raymond Parry told people if they spent just a little more in Howard, South Dakota, it would make a difference. I really think that's had a tremendous impact on what's happened here."

Parry didn't stop there.

After the successful cash-flow project, Howard was awarded a three-year, $75,000 Annenberg implementation grant from South Dakota State's Program for Rural School and Community Renewal, which oversees 18 Rural Challenge projects statewide.

The grant pays half of Parry's teaching salary so that he can run Howard's Rural Challenge program. One of his first tasks was to turn a classroom at Howard High School into a rural resource center for the town.

Maps, county records, and photographs from the local historical society are available at the center for student research. And Howard Mayor Larry Gauger shows up from time to time to explain local zoning laws or agriculture trends to students.

The center has displayed exhibitions on local veterans and the history of Miner County rural schools, which once numbered 73. Now, there are only four schools countywide. Town residents are always welcome during school hours, and town meetings have been held at the center. "This kind of relationship never existed before," Parry says.

Local volunteers have personal reasons for staffing the center. "We're going to lose some more people because families aren't as big as they used to be, and you begin to wonder what's going to happen to us," says LuLu Anderson, a retired former school teacher. "We need to look at the young people to help, and that's one of the reasons we're here."

"People need time to swallow and then digest. You can't just shove something down people's throats out here."

Beth Funk,
Kooskia, Idaho

But not every community takes to the program as smoothly as Howard has.

For nearly five years, concerned residents in the north-central Idaho towns of Elk City and Kooskia, which have 1,200 residents combined, have studied ways to expand local cultural and business opportunities.

"We were just trying to find out how the hell to survive," says Beth Funk, a resident of Kooskia and a former forest ranger. "The logging industry isn't what it was when we moved here."

A scout for the Rural Challenge program last winter contacted Funk and other interested town residents about their work on arts education. To the residents, the Rural Challenge seemed a way to help schools develop an arts-based language arts curriculum and raise money for other projects.

But when the scout came to town in the spring, he received a cool welcome.

Several residents were worried that the Annenberg work was linked to federal school programs and school-based workforce development. That concern was intense, Funk says, because the scout also worked for the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, an education research and technical assistance center in Portland, Ore., funded by the U.S. Department of Education. "They were trying to get him to say how the Rural Challenge was connected to the government," Funk recalls.

Some people were also taken aback by the program's central tenet.

"The school has not and never should be the center of the community," says Jamie Edmondson, a member of a group of town residents who organized to oppose participation in the Annenberg program. "There's too much now that takes away from education."

"I've always thought that the school was a building taxpayers paid for and they should be able to use it."

Larry Gauger
Mayor of Howard, S.D.

To Edmondson, the effort reeks of social engineering and is potentially damaging. "There's nothing wrong with saying you have a good community. But if you educate them just about their communities, then you're limiting their horizons."

The Rural Challenge will also try to lobby for the support of elected officials and others who set public policy.

The Rural Challenge has contracted with longtime Nebraska agriculture lobbyist Marty Strange to develop a public-policy agenda for the program. Strange works out of a converted barn in Randolph, Vt. He is focusing on academic standards, equity and finance, facilities and infrastructure, and governance.

Rural educators want rigorous academic standards, he says. But those developed so far don't accurately reflect today's rural America, Strange argues.

"If you read the standards and what you need to do to meet them, you'll learn that rural is yesterday and someplace else," he says. "We don't believe that. Standards need to be rooted in the place the school serves."

School finance and equity issues will likely focus on funding for rural communities that, hamstrung by shrinking tax bases and aging facilities, are often forced to close schools or consolidate with neighbors. In 1940, there were 117,108 school districts nationwide. By 1990, there were 15,367, an 87 percent decrease. Consolidation is not all bad, but it should be a local choice, Strange says.

Rural schools might get more respect if they were evaluated less on their size and more on their academic performance. For example, students in rural schools score higher than their nonrural peers on many national tests. On the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress 8th grade math test, students in rural and small towns averaged 276 out of a possible 500 points. Suburban and large-town test-takers averaged 273 points, and central-city students averaged 259. The good showing was also true for poor rural students. The average scores of students from the same groups who qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program were 257, 247, and 244, respectively.

The Rural Challenge's board of directors is expected to vote on the policy agenda Strange is working on by the end of the year. If adopted, local projects will be expected, but not required, to advocate the new priorities.

"They'll get into it as much as they want, but we want grantees to be central to it," Strange says. "We want to see a national rural education network, but it's too soon to say what the focus will be."

"It's their place. They're writing about their home. Nobody has told them that's important."

Mary Stangohr,
Howard, S.D.

Ultimately, the Rural Challenge's strongest hope for the future is in curricula that integrate rural schools and their communities. And if Howard students are any indication, such changes will have an impact.

It's the Thursday of a big football game, but all attention in Howard High's 5th-period English class is on the final projects of a seven-week session based on the novel of Iowa's farm crisis and rural poverty, Broken Heartland, by Osha Gray Davidson. A $1,000 Rural Challenge grant paid for resources for the class, such as the book and videotapes.

The project was an emotional journey for some students, many of whom know all too well about the perils of family farming when it runs into competition with massive corporate operations.

"What are you going to do with your learning? Are you willing to take some risks?" asks their teacher, Mary Stangohr. "Like it or not, the fate of the nation is in your hands. I'd like you to stand up and make sure that nobody makes you a serf on your own land."

Tiffany Feller and Melinda Alfson, juniors at Howard High School who have known each other throughout childhood, are going to document how their lives are intertwined with the agriculture industry.

Ultimately, the Rural Challenge's strongest hope for the future is in curricula that integrate rural schools and their communities.

Feller's family farm was hit hard last winter when early freezes damaged crops and caused the deaths of several cattle. Tears well up in her eyes as she recalls tracking two dozen cattle early one winter morning with her father, only to find half of them dead. The cattle discovered some stalks of corn and, driven by hunger, gorged themselves until they died.

"It was really hard to deal with. We decided to sell out," she says. Her family retained some of its acreage, but sold the farmhouse and moved into town this fall. "I don't understand how this happened. The banks and the government didn't do as much as they could have."

Meanwhile, Alfson's grandparents recently sold the family's service station after 40 years, largely because patrons, like the Fellers, couldn't bring them business when the hard times hit.

"People complain that we closed, but you would see them in another town buying gas," Alfson says. "Well, I tell them, 'You can go there now.'"

Vol. 17, Issue 14, Page 24-28

Published in Print: November 26, 1997, as Learning To Survive
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