Echoo Valentine is only 16 years old, but she has already learned a universal lesson of community life. If you want people to show up, she advises an audience here, offer food.
Ms. Valentine and other members of the Students in Action group at her school in tiny Arthur, Neb., did just that last fall. A barbecue supper they organized drew some 125 adults to a meeting—part of an ambitious plan to open a student-run grocery store in their ailing and isolated heartland community.
If the students succeed, Arthur County residents will no longer have to travel 36 miles and more for a jug of milk or a carton of eggs. If the students fail, they still will have learned lessons of economics and community relations, having worked shoulder-to-shoulder with two local women who have made the girls’ project their own passionate concern.
Either way, six girls involved in the project were among the more than 500 students from a dozen states, stretching from Georgia to California, who flocked to a local convention center here on March 27 and 28. They came for fun, recognition of their work, and some serious talk about the state of rural and small-town America. Now in its third year, the “Student Extravaganza” showcases the efforts of students to blend their schools and their communities, to the mutual benefit of both.
Fittingly, the conference is organized and run by students. It has financial backing from two networks of rural schools funded by the Annenberg Foundation of St. Davids, Pa., which five years ago gave $50 million for efforts to improve schools in rural areas. (“Learning To Survive,” Nov. 26, 1997.)
Adults at the conference act as advisers and chaperones, but only students—as young as 5th grade—are allowed to make presentations.
Main Street Mainstays
At this year’s gathering, under the banner “Small Towns, Big Dreams,” three teenage keynote speakers exhorted the crowd to see themselves as mainstays of Main Street, thriving in the rural places that have nurtured them.
There could hardly be a better spot than Kearney for that pep talk. The town of 24,000 people squats at the edge of the Nebraska’s western prairie, where times have grown as lean as the farmers and ranchers who try to make a living here. Half of the 10 poorest counties in the nation are in rural Nebraska and South Dakota, and more than half of the participants at the Extravaganza came from the farms, ranches, and little towns of these two states.
Ms. Valentine has the teenage habit of staring off into space when she talks to an adult, but she has taken a good, hard look at the town of Arthur.
“Our town is kind of dying out,” she said. “The only thing open anymore is the bar and the schoolhouse; we have a gas station every once in a while, open when he feels like it.”
Among the reasons the girls listed for starting up a grocery store is that it would give the 300 students at Arthur County High School, which serves students in 7th through 12th grade, another lunch option. Since the only food store in Arthur—a hamlet of 125 people—closed more than two years ago, those who live too far to walk home must bring a sack lunch or grab something at the bar.
The store project eventually brought together some disparate activists: the girls of the Students in Action community-service club, which Ms. Valentine helped found two years ago; two local women with an economic-development grant from the state; and Curt Shaw, the director of a student-entrepreneurship program who, incidentally, oversees the Extravaganza.
Mr. Shaw, who is employed by the Black Hills Special Services Cooperative in South Dakota, a consortium of 12 school districts, coached the Arthur students for their community meeting, which followed up a telephone survey.
Hope Comes Hard
Six students reached about a quarter of the county’s population in the survey, which indicated interest in the store, but wariness, too. In a county with a dwindling population and an average per-capita annual income under $10,000, hope can take a lot of work.
“They’re afraid of new things,” said Ms. Valentine, who remembers resistance to the English-style riding her parents tried to introduce when they were leaders of the local 4-H Club.
To get the store open, students and advisers know they face a climb steeper than any visible out on the prairie.
That has been clear from the outset to Joy Marshall, a parent at the school, and Virginia Sizer, whose children are graduates, as they collaborated to win a state grant to underwrite the project. And yet both women have already seen the powerful, transformative effect on the girls of engaging in this socially valued work: Shy girls who welcomed a visiting politician. A student with problems reading and writing who moved the project along by drawing on just those skills. Thirteen-year-olds who led break-out discussion groups of 10 adults.
“And some of these girls absolutely did not consider themselves leaders,” Ms. Marshall said, her eyes filling with tears. “Kids sometimes get overlooked because they are not A and B students.”
Not every project showcased at the conference would create a grocery store or preserve local history or attract tourists, although plenty of such ambitious plans were on display. Some of the work was less dramatic, such as weaving young and old lives together.
Junia Meyer brought several of her 7th graders from Willow Lake, S.D., a town with one paved street and two beauty shops. In Ms. Meyer’s class on consumer and family science, some students decided to visit elderly neighbors, which included shoveling snow, righting broken mailboxes, and preparing a meal.
“In my classroom, we pick projects dealing with something they are concerned with or they find interesting,” said Ms. Meyer, a 30-year veteran who teaches household skills to middle and high schoolers and physical education to elementary students. “If there are things they should learn, I make [those subjects} fit.”
In skilled hands, Ms. Meyer’s approach yields both learning that lasts and life-saving contributions to small communities, many advocates of improving rural education say. “Good teaching,” goes a formulation from School at the Center, the Nebraska network for rural school reform, “connects learning with students and community.”
Do It Again?
For most of two days, longtime rural education advocate Rachel Tompkins looked on thoughtfully from the fringes of the Extravaganza.
Named less than a year ago to head the Rural School and Community Trust, the organization that is succeeding the Annenberg Rural Challenge, Ms. Tompkins’ views will help determine whether national money backs a fourth student conference. The effort to strengthen rural schools and their communities launched by the Annenberg Foundation five years ago is coming to its official end, but an expanded board with a mandate to raise additional money plans to keep the work going under the new name.
“There was no other national organization really saying, loud and clear, that what happens in rural schools matters,” said Ms. Tompkins, noting that 17 percent of students attend school in places with fewer than 2,500 residents.
For each of the three years of the conference, two Rural Challenge statewide projects—School at the Center in Nebraska and the Program for Rural School and Community Renewal in South Dakota—have budgeted money for the event, which also costs each participant $30. The trust has also kicked in money directly.
Looking down long, white-linen-covered tables filled with students, Ms. Tompkins regretted the lack of racial and ethnic diversity at the conference—no more than a handful of students were nonwhite or Hispanic—and later reflected on its size.
“Is it too big?” she asked. “More regional extravaganzas might be better, but then you lose something, too.”
She also fretted a bit that few projects addressed scientific or mathematical issues beyond applied computer technology.
On the other hand, she rejoiced in the progress the students had made for their communities and in the smooth flow of the conference.
“When you support this kind of activity, where kids take responsibility, it nurtures democracy,” she said.
While Ms. Tompkins contemplates the big picture, conference organizer Curt Shaw has already started to line up his organizing team for next year. He’s got his eye on the students at Howard High School in Howard, S.D., which has linked itself in a half-dozen ways to surrounding Miner County. If Howard accepts, it would host the conference in a South Dakota location.
But as tired as she was, Vicki L. Wray, a junior at a high school in Ord, Neb., who was master of ceremonies for this year’s Extravaganza, wasn’t sure she was quite ready to cede the reins.
“It almost gets addictive,’' said the poised young woman, who doesn’t rule out a political future, though her more immediate sights are set on veterinary school. “You feel you could do it all over again.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Rural Youths Share Efforts To Keep Home Fires Burning