Crisis in the rural classroom


Education: Despite studies showing their effectiveness, small rural schools are fighting to survive closings and consolidations brought on by population losses.

July 25, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Jim Riedlinger, the only administrator in the Flaxville, Mont., school district, prays not for rain this summer but for an influx of large families with plenty of school-age kids. Quadruplets would be splendid.

In April, voters in the northeastern Montana town rejected annexation by Scobey, a larger district a dozen miles west. The 112-82 vote, a record turnout, saved the school from closing July 1, but it will open next month with fewer than 20 students in grades kindergarten through 12. Prospects for its long-term survival are dim.

"At stake is the survival of Flaxville as a community," says Riedlinger, superintendent, principal and sometime teacher.

From the Appalachians to the Bible Belt and across the Great Plains, Flaxville's plight is familiar. Small rural schools have been closed and consolidated, and many are fighting for their lives. This comes as bustling suburban districts can't build schools fast enough, and as metropolitan districts are breaking their unmanageably large high schools into smaller units on the philosophy that smaller is better.

But in the Midwest, where 70 percent of rural counties have suffered population losses in two decades, smaller schools are as economically inefficient as smaller farms and ranches. School officials there and in isolated mountain communities and cotton farming towns in the South say they can't afford the staff and equipment needed to operate half-empty schools, even if it means rural towns often lose community centers and the salaries and other economic benefits of school operations. Even if it means long bus rides for many kids.

"People look at these schools and say they're inefficient, and that's the end of the argument," says Marty Strange, policy director of the Rural Schools and Community Trust, an advocacy group for rural schools. "Never mind research showing that these schools are quite competitive in cost per graduate because their graduation rates are so high. And never mind that they lack the alienation and violence that we've seen in the big urban and suburban schools."

Racial politics complicate matters in the rural South. In Montgomery County in central Mississippi, for example, officials want to close the predominantly black school in Duck Hill and bus its 100 students 21 miles to another mostly African-American school in Kilmichael. On their ride, the students would pass the county seat, Winona, a separate municipal district where most of Montgomery's whites live and send their children to public schools or to a nearby Christian academy.

"It's been a major issue," says Drustella White, vice mayor of Duck Hill. "No one wants to talk about district consolidation in Winona. That dog ain't going to hunt there. But they will make sure our kids don't go to school in Winona. A lot of it is pure racism."

Pure racism is what some see at work in Lakeview, Ark., west across the Mississippi River from Winona. The economically struggling, mostly African-American town has seen enrollment drop to 225 from a high of 1,600 in the 1960s, and state officials are talking about consolidating Lakeview with a nearby district to bolster enrollment.

But Lakeview, founded by dispossessed sharecroppers during the Depression, has a distinction: It's the lead plaintiff in a successful school finance lawsuit brought by Arkansas' poorest districts. If the lawsuit withstands an appeal to the state Supreme Court, Arkansas will have to pay an extra $1 billion a year to make school spending more equitable.

Leon Phillips Jr., Lakeview's longtime superintendent, and Strange of the rural school group think the talk of consolidation is punishment for Lakeview's role in the school finance case.

If Lakeview wins the battle, it loses the war, says Strange. "It will be punished for doing what is right," he says.

During the debate over consolidation, a judge in rural Arkansas e-mailed a state commission considering the issue. If Lakeview is consolidated, wrote Andrew Bagley, "there will be fewer starters on football teams, fewer presidents of student councils, fewer valedictorians. ... All consolidation will do is create big conglomerates that are more difficult to manage [and] do not generate the kind of community support that you will see in small towns."

The loss of these school traditions makes a school closing one of the most emotional events in American education, one that splits communities and even families. The consolidated survivor usually tries to carry on customs, traditions and team names of the closed school, but "it's a losing battle," says Strange, adding that "the end of the school often spells the end of the community."

Strange finds it "extremely ironic" that metropolitan school officials struggle to make their schools smaller while dismissing rural resistance to consolidation as small-minded. "So smallness becomes a privilege, and bigness is forced on people without the economic or political clout to resist it," he says.

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