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Rural Decline: One School at a Time

Tuesday, January 1st, 2008

I’ve only been through Magnolia, Iowa once or twice, and I don’t know much about the town. Though, what I do know reveals a story all to common in the Midwest and Great Plains. Located in Harrison County in far Western Iowa, the population of the area reached its peak over 100 years ago, a common pattern if not a peak even more distant in the past than nearby regions.

In 1900 there were 25,597 people in the county. By 2000 there were just 15,666, a 40% decline. I turned up some old pictures of the school in Magnolia. Here is the story they tell.

With many more people in both the town and the surrounding countryside, Magnolia was home to a three story brick school by 1916.

Magnolia School in 1916. Photo source.

By 1953 the school had been expanded with an addition that included a large gymnasium. The population of the county was already declining significantly by the middle of the century.

Magnolia School in 1953. Photo source.

I drove through Magnolia, population now less then 200, this last August. As I slowed down on Highway 127, I glanced right and caught just a glimpse of the now abandoned school a block to the North. The top floor has collapsed into the building. The few bricks that remain standing on the top floor frame a window, and highlight the collapse that is occurring on all sides of the building.

Magnolia School in August of 2007. This poor quality photo was taken with a cell phone camera, the only thing I had available.

It is likely fair to conclude that no children will ever again go to school in Magnolia. That’s unfortunate, but we can learn from this stunning rise and decline of a building.

As rural communities struggle to survive amidst a declining rural population, our social infrastructure is the most crucial resource we have. Communities with grocery stores, drug stores and schools will be the ones to survive to host another generation. Once these critical components of a community begin to fade away young adults looking for a place to raise a family skip by in search of one where the school is within walking distance, not a long bus ride away.

We need new policies, ideas, and innovations that keep more rural schools open, and ensure that few schools come to look like the one in Magnolia does today.

Ag Education: A Different Way

Saturday, June 2nd, 2007

The Associated Press reported this week that twice as many Iowa high schools are looking for teachers for their agricultural education programs this year than there are potential candidates graduating with the appropriate degree from Iowa State University. The same is generally true in other states as well.

Some educators warn that a shortage of agriculture instructors could stifle student development in 1 of Iowa’s largest industries. […]

A national study on agriculture educators indicated 40 high school ag departments across the country shut down last year due to the lack of a qualified teacher.

Low pay compared to the business world and the urbanization of America are blamed for the shortage.

The solutions suggested in the story, while not bad ideas, are pretty run-of-the-mill:

Miller hopes several steps recently taken by the state will attract young people into the profession.

Those efforts include boosting teacher salaries, providing sign-on bonuses and using student-loan forgiveness programs.

I graduated from a small school district in Iowa with a declining number of students and a dwindling number of students enrolled in the agricultural education program. Not only will my high school face the challenge of finding a new teacher for the position someday, but it will also face the challenge of continuing to justify a full time position for a limited number of students interested in agriculture. I suspect the same is true at many small, rural districts across the country.

Furthermore, the districts that will face the most challenges attracting, retaining, and justifying full time agricultural education teachers are the districts where maintaining such programs is both most critical and holds the most promise for attracting students serious about a future in farming.

So, I have a proposal for Iowa State University. Establish a program that will allow local farmers to go back to school part-time to become agricultural education teachers in their local districts. Utilize the current extension service to reach out to potential candidates, and to deliver initial instruction. Follow that up with a combination of distance-based learning and short periods of intensive instruction on campus during farmers’ off-seasons.

Who could be better suited to train and mentor the next generation of farmers than one or two local farmers who work as part-time agricultural education instructors at their local school? Even just off the top of my head, I can think of several farmers I know who would make excellent teachers, and I bet some of them would jump at the opportunity to do so.

While loan forgiveness, higher pay, and sign-on bonuses are all ways to attract the needed professionals to rural communities, we must also think outside of the box and turn to our local resources when seeking to solve the challenges facing rural communities today.

There is a battle going on…

Tuesday, September 5th, 2006

It is a battle over the future of education in rural communities.

[I]t’s not pretty and certainly not rational. Across the country, states are pushing to close their small rural schools with the mistaken hope of saving money. This struggle is currently happening in almost all regions of the country and includes states as diverse as Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska, South Carolina, and South Dakota…

What is especially irrational about this trend is that these efforts persist in spite of overwhelming evidence that smaller schools are beneficial for kids. For example, research evidence documents that when socioeconomic factors are controlled, children in smaller schools:

  • Are more academically successful than those in larger schools.
    • Have higher graduation rates.
      • Are more likely to take advanced level courses.
        • Are more likely to participate in extra-curricular activities.
          • In addition, small schools are frequently the glue that binds together small communities, serving as their economic and social hub. Small villages that lose their schools lose more than a building—they lose their collective cultural and civic center.

            For nearly as long as I can remember, administrators of my hometown school (Laurens–Marathon) in rural Iowa have been scheming to further consolidate the already consolidated district. They came close to success several years ago, but things turned south for their plans at a community meeting in the neighboring community we were to be consolidated with.

            The meeting got off to a slow start, but before the night was out even the superintendent of the neighboring school had relinquished his chair behind the table with the local school board to approach the microphone. “I speak not as an administrator, but as a parent and community member,” he said, “And as a parent and community member I want my children to graduate from our own school.”

            The gymnasium erupted in cheers. The local school board and the superintendent from Laurens–Marathon sat stone-faced on the other side of their table.

            The Rural School and Community Trust just published a new policy brief (excerpted above) The Hobbit Effect: Why Small Works in Public Schools. I think I will send a copy to the administrators at Laurens-Marathon.

            Rural Education

            Friday, August 18th, 2006

            “If students have to move away from their rural communities in order to use the things that we teach them, then we are teaching them the wrong things.” - David Nickell, West Kentucky Community and Technical College, at the 69th Annual Meeting of the Rural Sociological Society while speaking on The Death and Rebirth of Rural Sociology panel.

            What About Us?

            Saturday, July 29th, 2006

            Rural school students in South Carolina are asking their state legistators, “What about us?

            “It affects us to the point where you can see the depression,” Monisha Brown explained as she toured a reporter through a photo exhibit of school facilities in rural South Carolina. The photos vividly illustrate unsafe and inappropriate conditions: exposed wiring, bathrooms with overflowing plumbing, crumbling bricks and rotting wood, and a host of makeshift efforts to keep out the rain.

            If I can find any of the photos online, I’ll link to them here.

            School Buildings for Sale

            Thursday, May 25th, 2006

            Aside from the fact that the school had to close in the first place, I love this story.

            Speaking from the unique new home of his electronic business TAB Funkenwerks, [Oliver Archut] tells his story in a deep European accent: “On CNN I saw a documentary that the heartland of the United States is bleeding out. The schools are empty, the hospitals are empty. And they pretty much said that they were giving it away. That’s when I told my wife, find me a school.”

            So with a few keystrokes, Oliver’s wife and business partner Gwen went to the place to people go when they’re looking to get a deal on something totally random.

            “I just threw in school on e-Bay and there it was,” says perky Gwen from her office. “I was shocked. I had to speak with people three times before I actually believed the price they had said.”

            The price for the 30-thousand square foot former school: 25 grand. Too good to pass up. So the Archuts packed up their shop in Seattle, headed east, and didn’t stop until they were in Gaylord, Kansas.

            “There was no way you’re going to find a 30-thousand square foot anything in Seattle for 25 thousand dollars,” Gwen says. “That’s a minimum three million dollar investment.”

            So they bought the school and relocated their business from Seattle, Washington (Population 600,000) to Gaylord, Kansas (Population 145). They say that they have everything that they need in Gaylord: high speed internet, UPS service, potential employees, and a very low cost of doing business.

            Gwen and Oliver aren’t the only ones buying old rural schools for new business ventures. There’s others too.

            And now for the best part. Have a business idea? You too can buy an old rural school on ebay. There is about half a dozen for sale right now. Gaylord, Kansas set a trend though because schools are bringing more than $25,000 these days.

            Rural Bus Rides

            Friday, May 19th, 2006

            A school consolidation in works in Arkansas is threatening to leave some students with round trip bus rides totaling three hours each day. A parent group has filed a lawsuit claiming that excessive time on a bus violates students’ right to equal educational opportunities under the state constitution.

            And now for the urban hegemony quote of the week:

            Doug Eaton, director of public school facilities and transportation for Arkansas, said relocation is one option for rural residents concerned about lengthy bus rides.

            “If they don’t like to ride the bus, move closer to the school,” Eaton said in a telephone interview.

            Chris Heller, attorney for the Paron patrons, responded that the state Supreme Court has ruled that residence should not play a role in whether a student receives an adequate education.

            “A statement like (Eaton’s) is similar to saying if kids in poor Delta school districts don’t like the education they’re getting, they ought to move to Little Rock,” Heller said….

            The lawsuit against the state Board of Education… claims long bus rides hurt academic performance.

            Eaton said that claim could be extended to the point of arguing whether a Ford or Chevrolet bus is better for children.

            “I think anybody would be extremely, extremely hard pressed to be able to draw a parallel between a child’s inability to read and write and how long they’ve sat on a bus,” Eaton said.

            However, Rod McKnight of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services cited numerous studies that suggest a correlation between long bus rides and student achievement, though he said even those conclusions have conditions.

            In Nebraska rural school proponents are also fighting legislation that would force more rural school consolidations, and thus increase bus ride lengths for students there.

            Rural School Funding

            Wednesday, May 10th, 2006

            The Department of the Interior is backing off of their earlier plan to sell off pieces of national forest land to provide funding for rural schools in former logging communities. The payments are the result of federal legislation designed to offset declines in local tax bases in the wake of new federal forest policies in the 1990s that restricted logging on federal land.

            The Department will look for other funding sources.

            Arizona Board of Regents

            Saturday, May 6th, 2006

            Recent legislation in Arizona will require that two State Board of Regents members be from counties other than the state’s two major population centers of Pima (Tucson) and Maricopa (Phoenix) counties.

            Rural Arizona residents will be guaranteed representation on the state Board of Regents two years from now.

            Without comment, Gov. Janet Napolitano signed legislation Thursday to require that when the terms of two board members end in 2008 they will be replaced by people who do not live in either Pima or Maricopa counties.

            Together Pima and Maricopa County represent about 75% of the state’s population. All ten of the current regents are from either Pima or Maricopa County, so the enactment of the legislation is not merely symbolic.

            Gold Creek, Montana

            Tuesday, January 31st, 2006

            The second google result for Gold Creek, Montana directs you to a ghosttowns.com page for the town. The third result indicates that the town had a population of 35 in 1939.

            Yesterday the one room school house in Gold Creek was featured as part of the series on one room school houses on NPR’s Morning Edition.

            Gold Creek, Mont., has no stores, gas stations or bars, and its one church is closed. But it is rich in grazing land, and it still has a one-room school.

            It’s a tiny community in Powell County, on the western slope of the continental divide, once famous as the first place gold was discovered in Montana 150 years ago. And near here, in 1883, the Northern Pacific Railroad completed its east-to-west connection.

            But, like much of the state, Powell County has seen economic boom and bust. The mining and cattle ranching that once made it prosperous no longer sustain its people.

            Today Gold Creek is one of several small communities in the county that’s struggling to hold itself together. Jobs are scarce and young people are leaving the county to find work.

            At Gold Creek School last spring, teacher Kim Tozzi had six students, in kindergarten through sixth grade.

            Tozzi had come to Gold Creek from large urban and suburban schools in Las Vegas, Kansas City and Salt Lake City…

            Read more, see pictures and listen to the feature story here. The rest of the series is here. The series continues through June.

            My parents taught in a two room school house in Galata, Montana in the 1970s. The school is still open, and I visited it on this trip.

            Reversing the Rural Decline

            Tuesday, December 13th, 2005

            by Brian Depew

            There’s yet another story today about the shrinking population of the rural United States. This one is from Kansas where 3/4 of the state’s 105 counties lost population between 2000 and 2004, and for the eighth year in a row 60 percent of the school districts in the state saw their enrollment decline yet again in 2005.

            The story discusses the usual causes (changes in the agriculture sector), and the usual responses (school consolidation).

            I admire communities like Utica, Kansas where they hung onto their school until last year when enrollment for the entire district fell below 40 students, and Cuba, Kansas where a school with an enrollment of 100 students remains open.

            But stubborn perseverance alone will not save these communities. We must transform how we think about rural areas.

            We need to move beyond current policies that have done little to reverse the long decline, and instead implement public policies that seek to support and build the civil institutions that rural people depend on (schools included).

            This means figuring out how to arrest population decline, but initially it means more than that. It means using creative ideas to keep schools, post offices and grocery stores open. It means looking at new and creative ways to fund vital activities. It means forming new coalitions to lobby state and federal governments for both fiscal support and beneficial policy changes.

            Some of the community leaders in the story understand the problem.

            “We’ve got to find things people can do to stay in Republic County,” said [school Superintendent] Lysell, who’s also active in the county’s economic development efforts. “What we have now is a sort of cycle — we give our kids a really good education, they go off to college and then they don’t come back because they can’t make the kind of money here that they can make in the larger cities. And then with fewer people here, we start to lose businesses,” he said.

            But we have to move beyond defeatist response like this one given by the director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University.

            “[Rural Communities that have bucked the trend] are exceptions rather than the rule,” said WSU’s Harrah, adding, “I don’t expect to see a turnaround.”

            Clearly they’re not going to help us.

            We need leaders (people in positions like school Superintendent Lysell) to bring rural communities together and form grassroots organizations. These organizations can (and should) be the hub of innovative ideas about how to maintain and build the civil institutions rural communities need. Additionally, these groups need to be encouraged to stand up and demand policy changes when they are needed at the state and federal level.

            I believe that a sustainable rural future is possible, but it will have to start in the communities most affected by the current decline. Policies that keep schools in rural communities, bring jobs back and implement creative funding mechanisms are a start. With support and encouragement I believe that ideas like these will see wider implementation, and that many more ideas like them will emerge from our rural communities.

            There’s certainly no sense in waiting around for the solutions to come from above.

            The declines have the attention of Sen. Janis Lee, D-Kensington.

            “It’s been devastating,” Lee said. “I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s pretty clear that economic efforts that have been undertaken in this state haven’t worked. I don’t think they have a clue what we’re dealing with out here.”

            We have to take the solutions to them. They are waiting.

            Judge Supports Small Schools

            Wednesday, November 16th, 2005

            There has been a movement underfoot in Nebraska to require small elementary schools to merge with larger districts. Yesterday a Judge rulled in favor of plaintiffs seeking to prevent the new law from taking effect.

            A state law requiring all elementary-only schools to merge with larger districts was put on hold by a judge Monday, keeping alive hopes that the consolidation law will be overturned by voters next year.

            Even if voters don’t repeal the law, at the very least the Legislature will have to rewrite it to set new deadlines, said Sen. Ron Raikes of Lincoln, the chief backer of the law.

            “I’m just very disappointed,” Raikes said.

            Note that the “chief backer of the law” is a legislator from Lincoln, the second largest city in the state.

            If the schools are dissolved as current law requires in June 2006, “a fair opportunity to vote in a meaningful manner will not be available,” Lancaster County District Judge Paul Merritt Jr. ruled.

            Merritt’s granting of a temporary injunction means that the law is suspended and the mergers cannot move ahead. Unless his decision is overturned, the schools can remain open at least until voters get a chance in November 2006 to decide whether to throw out the merger law.

            “There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll win at the ballot box,” said Mike Nolles, president of Class I’s United, a group that supports the elementary-only schools. […]

            This year there are 206 elementary-only schools in Nebraska, many of which are in the most rural parts of the state. Supporters of the schools fought the law, saying they should be able to determine their own fate and not be forced to merge.

            Law proponents argue that having K-12 districts statewide will save money and provide a more equitable education to all students.

            The Nebraska based Center for Rural Affairs has issued multiple studies that seek to show such claims are untenable.

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