Many of our rural schools are facing the reality of closure. In many cases this is due to a declining population of school-aged children in rural areas, reflecting the changing demographics of traditional agrarian landscapes into communities comprised of retirees or commuters. Increasingly, though, urban schools are perceived as superior to their rural counterparts, with the result that many students now travel outside of their community to engage in education. Why is this?
In general, the purpose of schools is to provide opportunities for students to develop their skills, knowledge, and capacity for success as problem solvers and effective citizens all within a safe environment. In particular, rural schools are often understood to impart a strong sense of values and responsibility to students in these communities. This is often due to the integral role of the school in the rural landscape and the strong social and historical connectance, sense of place, and evident work ethic. In comparison, urban schools, due to their larger size and access to resources, can often offer a wider variety of academic opportunities for students.
Given the higher levels of unemployment common to rural areas across Canada, many parents are placing the greatest emphasis on academic achievement with the understanding that their child is unlikely to remain in the community in which he or she was born, choosing instead to compete professionally in the wider society.
As the presence of the school in a rural community is seen as vital to its survival and identity, what can be done to maintain its importance as a social focus in rural populations?
Many authors have stressed the value of school-community partnerships, including such projects as: local stream restoration; heritage mapping; pre-school, ESL, and adult education programs; health education; and art, music, and writing classes for community members. Others have emphasised the significance of developing community and a sense of place in students as prerequisites for their effective participation in the local economy. However, as we have seen, it is often the dearth of job opportunities in rural communities that compels young people to pursue employment elsewhere.
I recently attended a community meeting where a number of parents and teachers voiced their concerns that the local school would be closed by the end of the coming academic year. In order both to retain their rural school and elevate student numbers, the community representatives are seeking to develop a program of environmental education, in possible partnership with our watershed group which is active in the area. Such approaches have been very successful elsewhere. However, it is worth noting that such programs cannot exist in isolation. If a school is to strengthen both its identity and resilience in the face of closure, it is essential that its leadership capacity be investigated before adopting school- and community-wide initiatives—integrated approaches—especially if the vision is one of a "lighthouse" school.
To increase school-community connectance, Roger Mello, Principal of Rappahannock County High School, says, "Start small, and look at what you're already doing", then ask these questions:
• What are the needs and interests of the community?
• Can the school help meet them?
• Can we meet these needs while teaching the required academic content?
• Would the work be appreciated in the community?
• Would the work be competitive with something else in the community?
These are vital questions. A program may meet with enthusiastic support from the school's educators and administrators, but if it fails to address the wishes of the community then it cannot possibly succeed. Roger Mello adds the following:
• Community-school partnerships take a lot of collaboration. Many times they don't take a lot of money, but they do take a lot of time and effort to get organized.
• It takes all kinds of people and mindsets to make these kinds of collaborations a success. Seek them out.
• As expectations and standards are raised for students, and more students are meeting those standards, they need support to know what to do with them.
• Students need help to understand the college process and they need real-world applications for what they are learning.
• Teachers need support, too. Make sure to let teachers know they are appreciated. Improve salaries when possible (salaries are more of a dissatisfier than satisfier) and otherwise make the teaching experience as satisfying and rewarding as possible.
• This kind of work can get politically touchy. You have to be open. You have to have a lot of different kinds of people involved. And students should do data gathering and analysis, but not advocacy.
• This work is hard, but it's worth it.
[For more information on the challenges facing rural schools in Canada—and some suggested solutions—please refer to this issue of Lessons in Learning, published by the Canadian Council on Learning. Also, Bruce Miller's 1995 report on The Role of Rural Schools in Community Development is essential reading on the topic of community-based learning.]