Monday, December 18, 2006

Small schools, big problems...

Small schools in rural America are dwindling. In places like Nebraska and Montana, charming country schoolhouses simply have no one to serve. Declining populations and - perhaps more importantly, fertility - have made difficult closure decisions commonplace.

Shafer and many rural Nebraskans for years have watched people leave, businesses dry up and the number of farms and ranches dwindle. In some places, small schools are among the few remaining symbols of vitality and community identity, providing hope for the future while acting as reminders of the past. An anomaly in some states, they remain a pillar of education systems in some, like Nebraska and Montana, that have remote regions where cattle have long outnumbered people.

But populations in rural areas of those and other states are dipping to levels where there are few, and sometimes no students to teach. A school in the same county as Pony Lake shut down this year when its attendance dropped to a lone student.

In Montana, small country schools are drying up like the state's drought-plagued pastures. About a hundred have closed over the last decade and "the rate of decrease has accelerated," said Claudette Morton, director of the Montana Small Schools Alliance. [More]

We are still dropping school population here in my corner of central Illinois. It seems some towns achieve a critical mass and attract job-providers and population, or the Mother of All Good Fortune , a major government facility like a university. Others are reshaped by economics into low-cost bedroom/retirement locations for those in the lower half of our economy.

There is a popular, but mistaken belief that economic support to agriculture can reverse this trend. That seems unlikely, since the determining factor for the number of people in farming is not profitability, but technology. We are adding gizmos from GPS to robot milkers that drastically lower the need for people.

A more likely scenario as prosperity surges through low-population areas may be boarding schools. You read that right. Sure, homeschooling is a choice, but requires a parental commitment some may not be able to make.

Others been here before, and when distances were not easily covered, the boarding school became a valid choice for rural parents who could afford it. Now add in religious concerns about education, worries about competing academically, and difficulty attracting qualified teachers and we could see remote education become more acceptable to the next generation of farm families. Not to be offensive, but a growing foreign (mostly Hispanic) student percentage has awakened some unfortunate biases among rural parents who would just as soon their child grows up in a familiar (to them) culture. This concern may be greater than we think since few are willing to admit to it.

Besides, these children will likely be joined at the lip with Mom and Dad, like modern college students. And despite being traditionally associated with privileged and problem students, boarding schools may only be a voucher away for many farm families concerned with education in rural schools.


Anonymous said...

John -

I am living in Nebraska and see firsthand the declining population's effect on our rural towns and schools. I graduated with 21 kids 15 years ago and this year that same high school will graduate 15's a slow death!

We continue to raise taxes to support schools and infrastructure, but those expenses continue to be spread over fewer people...the economics don't make sense! I heard a speaker in SD once comment that, "maybe we overbuilt the Great Plains." Now we try to maintain those fixed costs at great expense to our own pocketbooks.

The 8th Circuit Court just recently struck down our I-300 law that limited corporate ownership in agriculture. Our local farm groups are fighting this like crazy, but I welcome the opportunity to bring more capital into the state and utilize our ag resources to grow our economic base. What else will we do? We can only expect Omaha to do so much.

Your thoughts on these corporate farming bans and their effects on rural America??

John Phipps said...

Thanks for the comment. Let me ponder and research before I blurt out an opinion.

(It's a new tactic for me.)

I'll try to post on this topic in the next few days. Keep reading.