Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Rural school issues in the national news

Yesterday, the New York Times ran this story about the closure of the public school in Arena, Wisconsin, population 834.  A few weeks ago, the paper ran this story about what budget cuts mean for a school in rural Snow Hill, North Carolina, population 1,595.  I'm always glad to see the national attention to rural schools and rural communities. 

Here's an excerpt from Julie Bosman's story about the Arena school, with a focus on the implications of the closure for the entire community:
People worry about losing not just their schools but their town’s future — that the closing will prompt the remaining residents and businesses to drift away and leave the place a ghost town. 
Rural schools have been closing in waves for decades, but the debate has taken on sharp urgency this year, particularly in communities in the Midwest and New England that have grown smaller and older since the recession.
Arena is part of the River Valley School District, which closed another of its elementary schools last year, leaving just one in the district.  Just over 100 seniors graduated from the district this year, while only 66 kindergartners are expected to start in the fall.

Bosman writes of the toll the decision to close the school--and all that happened in the run up to it--took on the community:
Friendships soured. Co-workers took sides. Elected officials held long and emotional hearings. Residents voted on a referendum attempting to raise money and save the school. School board officials faced a recall election, and after the vote last year, one member was told by friends that it might be best if he didn’t show up at the Fourth of July celebration in Lone Rock. He stayed away.
Incidentally, Arena is within the Madison Metropolitan Statistical Area.  This locale worked against it because it was not remote enough to qualify for special funding available to assist the most sparsely populated districts.  (Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin is just 10 miles away.  The village of Arena also features "a gas station, a cheese outlet, a cafe called Grandma Mary’s, beloved for its Friday fish fry and beef stroganoff.)

Bosman quotes Ronald Saari, the district administrator in Potosi, in western Wisconsin, who links the school closure crisis to big ag and the consolidation of small farms:

We’re an agricultural area.  At one point, they tell me, back in the ’80s there were 600-some kids in this district. But the smaller farms have consolidated into bigger company farms. Sometimes you sit back at the end of the day and reflect on how touch-and-go things are from year to year. When is that going to end?
Potosi's 320 students, K-12, are housed in a single building.

The story out of North Carolina, while using "rural" in the headline, is not that focused on rural issues. Here's an excerpt focusing on a student named Preston:
Preston, 8, goes to West Greene Elementary School in Snow Hill, a town of 1,500 in rural Greene County, N.C. Of the 100 counties in the state, Greene is one of the poorest. About four out of five public school students come from low-income families. Only three counties in North Carolina spend less on public education. 
All around Preston were signs of how little money his district has. West Greene is one of many schools across the country dealing with the effects of funding cuts, from broken-down buses to donated supplies to teachers who work second jobs. 
The story indicates that teachers from this district are unlikely to join state-wide protests about poor funding and low teacher salaries.
Teachers here said they felt they could address their needs locally, without getting involved in state politics, even though many said they were unhappy about their salaries and the school’s tight budget. Their detachment from the protests suggested that there were limits to the walkout movement, whose organizers are trying to mobilize voters ahead of midterm elections.
I wish journalist Dana Goldstein had said more about how the problems could be solved at the local level.  Is thinking they can be solved locally feasible?  or pie-in-the-sky thinking?  In any event, the decision by these rural teachers not to join state-wide pro-teacher movements saddens me.   Stories about the teacher strikes out of West Virginia did feature some teachers from towns in the 10,000 population range, though I don't recall reading about any very rural teachers.
As in Bosman's story out of Wisconsin, Goldstein gives a nod to shifting rural demographics:
There are more Latino immigrants who work in agriculture and food processing, and some of their children enroll in school. “We don’t care if they’re black, white, Mexican,” said Ms. Canada [Preston's grandmother], who is white and works as a home health aide.
I note that Greene County, of which Snow Hill is the seat, is quite racially diverse.  Those who are white only make up only 54% of the population, and African Americans are more than 37%.  Those who identify as Hispanic or Latino are about 15%.  Those who are white alone, not Hispanic or Latino, are 47%.  The county's population is about 21,000.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Whether big farms or small, 97% of all farms are family-owned and operated.