Rural Schools Market Selves to Survive

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The Old West-style "Wanted" posters are the first clue this village is recruiting students from the surrounding area to keep its K-12 public school open.

There are also the commercials before movies such as "The Passion of the Christ" at the downtown theater in nearby York, Neb.

"If you like being treated special," the announcer’s voice says as the white-picket-fence gates of the McCool Junction School football field seem to open magically, "McCool school is the place for you."

In rural parts of the nation, plenty of McCool Junctions are taking creative steps to lure new students to local schools in their quests to keep those schools open and their communities intact. Such drastic measures follow years of state budget cuts or modest hikes in state aid, along with dropping enrollments in some rural areas.

"It really has pitted us against other districts," said Curtis Cogswell, the superintendent here, of McCool Junction’s marketing campaign. "We’re fighting for our survival."

Elsewhere, towns and school districts in Kansas are giving away plots of land for home sites. And a district in Wisconsin is working with local Amish families to enroll more of their children as a way to avoid layoffs.

For some communities, it’s simply a matter of promoting their schools as places that offer the qualities parents want: small classes, safe environments, and close-knit, caring communities.

"If marketed effectively, rural schools might find that their inherent strengths could provide a strong incentive to keep parents in, or bring them back, to those communities," said Bryan Goodwin, a spokesman for Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, an Aurora, Colo.-based nonprofit organization.

No Place Like Home

Districts in Kansas are drawing new students to their rural communities using a venerable strategy that recalls frontier days: homesteading.

Ellsworth County is one of perhaps 10 communities in Kansas giving away free home sites to newcomers. The rebirth of homesteading began a few years ago in Minneapolis, Kan., and has spread to other places across the state.

Anita Hoffhines, the economic-development director in Ellsworth County, said the local 610-student school district joined with county leaders, bankers, and others to secure 21 free home sites in the town of Ellsworth for families who enroll their children in the public schools. The county is also offering partial down payments on houses or land for families who enroll their children in schools.

The down payments are based on the number of students each family enrolls. Families receive $1,500 for the first student, and $750 each for the second and third students, up to $3,000 in all.

The Ellsworth- Kanopolis-Geneseo school district may see up to 13 new students this coming fall from families drawn by the incentives. The families include newcomers from Las Vegas and Baton Rouge, La., Ms. Hoffhines said.

Superintendent Doug Moeckel said the district has lost about 300 students in the past decade. Even with several new students, he said, enrollment will continue to dwindle. But the new students will help the district preserve some programs and jobs, bringing in about $6,000 in state aid per pupil. The district donated land that had been intended for a new school for the free lots.

Ms. Hoffhines said the three local public schools are an easy sell: They have attractive campuses, the academic and extracurricular programs remain solid, and educators welcome the new families.

"All the families are making some type of sacrifice to come here," she added. "But the quality of the community, the quality of the schools in the county, are worth it for their kids."

With Kansas state legislators mired in debate over school funding, Ms. Hoffhines said, it’s up to rural communities to sustain themselves and draw new residents on their own. "We just can’t get them a sushi bar," she said.

Reaching Out to Amish

A district in Wisconsin, though, has found out how complicated bringing in new students can be.

Darlington, Wis., about 65 miles southeast of Madison, saw an influx of Amish families from the tourist area around Lancaster, Pa. The Amish families moved to Wisconsin when rising property values and streams of visitors began to burden them.

Joseph A. Galle, the superintendent of the Darlington Community Schools, said he developed a relationship with an Amish family when one of his sons started raising chickens in a 4-H Club project and went to the Amish when he needed help processing the poultry.

That contact blossomed into conversations between the adults about how the Darlington schools might serve the Amish families, who operate their own one-room schools in the neighboring Belmont school district. The Amish at first were interested in help with school bus transportation, but talks soon led to a plan to hire a licensed teacher to help with instruction.

Under such a plan, the Darlington district could tap state aid for each student it served, and could invite older Amish students— who usually do not attend high school—into its agriculture or other vocational programs, if deemed appropriate by the Amish families.

But the 340-student Belmont district blocked the move, even though that district would have received some state revenue for the students who attended school outside the district after the first couple of years. (The superintendent of the Belmont schools could not be reached for comment for this story.)

The 870-student Darlington district found itself with a budget deficit last year, and the new revenue would have helped prevent cutbacks, Mr. Galle said. He awaits word from the Amish school board, which is allowed to run its own public schools under state law, on how its community would like to proceed.

"The whole thing was to build trust in what each was doing," Mr. Galle said.

It Pays to Advertise

Like many other rural schools in the Great Plains states, meanwhile, McCool Junction School wrestles with state financing in its effort to stay open. And while this year posed one of the Nebraska district’s greatest threats, it also ended in one of its sweetest victories.

Faced with the possibility of being forced to close their school and merge with a neighboring district because of declining revenue and enrollment, community leaders knew they had to pass a bond levy this spring.

But Nebraska law would not have even allowed the vote if the district failed to enroll 60 or more students in grades 9-12 this year. As enrollment in those grades slipped to near 60 last year, parents formed a marketing committee to recruit new students.

Ultimately, the crucial number stayed above 60, and voters approved the bond on May 11. The big payoff from the advertising, however, will come in the fall: The school plans to welcome about 40 new youngsters, raising enrollment to about 190 students in grades K-12.

More state money will follow the new students to McCool Junction, which received a mere $2,900 in total state funding this year for its $1.4 million annual school budget. Next year, the district expects to receive about $130,000 from the state.

"Our state-aid formula—nobody can figure it out," said school board member Ron Clark, a parent who has helped with marketing the school. His late mother also once fought to keep McCool Junction School open. "If there was proof that there’s better education in a larger school," Mr. Clark said, "I’d be more open-minded."

In the nearby town of York, Superintendent Terry Kenealy said he plans to find out why about 50 students are leaving his district to attend school in McCool Junction and elsewhere. He points out, however, that about 80 students will instead choose to enter the York schools in the coming fall from outlying areas.

Nebraska allows such moves under its open-enrollment policy.

"We don’t want to lose any students to another school district," Mr. Kenealy said. "We have to rethink what it is that we’re not doing" to keep those families.

The York district, which has three campuses and about 1,320 students, also has seen its enrollment dip in recent years. Mr. Kenealy said his district offers an array of arts programs, an alternative school for students who want a less traditional setting, and help for students who are behind academically.

Here in McCool Junction, a village of about 400 residents, students love the attention from teachers, and the chance for most everyone to play sports and perform in plays. Virtually everyone graduates.

The village streets stretch less than a half-mile in neat, square blocks. Most streets are lined with large wooden houses, and massive oaks form a cluster amid the rolling farmland of east-central Nebraska, 50 miles west of Lincoln, the state capital. Children park their bikes outside the brick, two-story school building that has stood for almost a century.

"It’s a special place," said senior Ben Underwood, whose father, Paul, helped lead the marketing campaign.

Vol. 23, Issue 39, Pages 1, 18

Published in Print: June 9, 2004, as Rural Schools Market Selves to Survive
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