ERIC Identifier: ED384479
Publication Date: 1995-08-00
Author: Miller, Bruce A.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
The Role of Rural Schools in Rural Community Development. ERIC
Over the past decade, efforts have been under way to help rural schools
become more responsive to the development needs of their communities. This
digest discusses progress made in using the school as a community development
resource. This discussion should be of special interest to rural educators,
community development practitioners, and rural community leaders.
RURAL SCHOOLS AND COMMUNITY NEEDS
traditionally have played a central role in their communities. Besides providing
for basic education, they often have served as a cultural center in the
community. Athletics, drama programs, music, and other social activities
conducted at schools have played a vital part in rural community life and
identity formation dating back to the 19th century.
Many rural communities now face a decline in their quality of life due to the
1980s economic downturn and the 1990s globalization of the marketplace.
Businesses have closed and many young and well-educated citizens have left for
urban areas. Additionally, social services, including schools, have been
regionalized or consolidated as cost-cutting measures (Beaulieu & Mulkey,
1995; Miller, 1993). These trends have led to high levels of unemployment and
the deterioration of rural economic, social, and environmental well-being.
Many rural advocates believe a promising direction for the revitalization and
survival of communities lies in creating and sustaining collaborative
partnerships with schools (Hobbs, 1991; Miller, 1993; Monk & Haller, 1986;
Nachtigal, Haas, Parker, & Brown, l989; Spears, Combs, & Bailey, 1990).
However, building strong partnerships is not easy. It requires a shared vision
about the importance of community building and the school's role in supporting
long-term communitywide change.
Schools and communities in some rural areas have begun collaborating to
provide experiences for students that serve both educational and community
development goals (Stern, Stone, Hopkins, McMillion, & Crain, 1994; Spears,
Combs, & Bailey, 1990). For example, in Broadus, Montana, students worked
with a community beautification task force to redesign local buildings using a
western theme. This collaboration involved residents, an architect, and the
vocational education teacher (Miller, 1993).
THREE INTERRELATED APPROACHES
Researchers have identified
three distinctive, yet related, approaches that can build strong relationships
between schools and communities (Miller, 1993). Each approach helps students and
community members cross traditional boundaries that have separated communities
The first approach uses the school as a community center. The school becomes
a resource for lifelong learning and a vehicle for delivering a wide range of
services (Everson, 1994). School facilities, technology, and well-educated staff
members can provide a wide range of educational and retraining opportunities for
the whole community. In an early version of this approach, the community school
movement of the 1970s, schools offered educational opportunities ranging from
day care to adult literacy (Minzey & LeTarte, 1972). A recent version of the
school-as-community-center approach is the development of integrated family
services. In this approach, the school collaborates with social service
providers to meet the needs of rural youth and families (Stoops & Hull,
1993). Services may include health screening, day care, and dental treatment.
For example, in Saco, Montana, the school district has received funding to
create a fiber-optic network that will link them to two other remote
communities. The network will provide training for health professionals and fire
departments. Moreover, it will network schools and communities to help them
share resources (Miller, 1995a).
A second approach uses the community as curriculum, emphasizing the study of
community in all its complexity. Students generate information for community
development by conducting needs assessments, studying and monitoring
environmental and land-use patterns, and documenting local history through
interviews and photo essays. Nachtigal has written extensively in this area (see
Nachtigal, Haas, Parker, & Brown, l989). He points out that when students
study their community and get directly involved with local residents, they tend
to value their community more highly.
The best known and most comprehensive approach to community as curriculum is
the Foxfire network, which provides training and a support network for teachers
(Smith, 1991). Foxfire engages students in learning about their community
through direct encounters with its history. Students learn to interview
residents and construct narratives that help preserve the historical context of
communities for future generations.
A third approach, school-based enterprise (SBE), emphasizes school as
developer of entrepreneurial skill. Students identify potential service needs in
their rural communities and establish a business to address those needs. Sher
and DeLargy have turned the SBE idea into a curriculum program for rural schools
called REAL (Rural Entrepreneurship through Action Learning). With the help of
REAL, students have set up businesses such as a shoe repair, delicatessen, and
day-care center. In this way they have provided both employment and services not
readily available previously (in Stern et al., 1994). Like Foxfire, REAL is a
comprehensive program that provides curriculum, training, and a support network.
These three interrelated approaches provide a way to think about how schools
and communities can work together for their mutual benefit. The long-term
benefits of these school-community partnerships may include leadership
development, renewed civic responsibility, and a revitalized sense of community.
COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT AND THE SCHOOL
Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (NWREL) have used all three approaches
as starting points for helping schools find ways to collaborate with their
communities to provide services and educate youth. In 1992, the Rural Education
Program at NWREL began pilot testing a rural community development model in
three small, isolated rural communities in the Northwest. The model, Community
Development Partnership (CDP), was designed to build local capacity for renewal
and growth by using local school district resources, such as students, teachers,
facilities, and equipment. Student involvement provided an opportunity for youth
to work alongside adults and to develop skills and competencies required for
successful citizen involvement.
At the center of the CDP process is the importance of place in the beliefs
and values of rural people. These people choose to live in small, rural
communities because there is something they value about the place. They may
value the environment, the people, the isolation, the opportunity to be
self-sufficient, the small size, or a combination of these characteristics.
Whatever the reason, place and what that place has come to mean provide fertile
ground for building a solidarity of purpose. Developing a recognition of this
common ground provides a motivational basis upon which to unite a community in
A second premise of the CDP models is the belief that community development
must address more than economics. In fact, without efforts made to improve the
social and environmental dimensions of community well-being, it is unlikely that
economic growth can occur and be sustained (Flora & Flora, 1993).
The CDP model incorporates vision- and consensus-building activities designed
to unite the community in action. Activities include figuring out
community-school readiness, selecting and training a community coordinator, and
holding a series of community meetings. The meetings result in the creation of a
structure for empowering the community and school to address local development
issues. By participating in these activities, students develop skills needed to
be effective members of a community, strengthening their rural identities and
Results from the CDP pilot tests provide evidence that the school can play a
vital role as a resource in community development. All three communities used
school materials, equipment and facilities for meetings. They also developed
projects to address community needs. Examples of such projects include creation
of a summer recreation program for youth and adults, passage of a bond for a new
school, development of a community cultural center targeting at-risk youth,
beginning a REAL program, and formation of a $200,000 private fund to provide
community development grants. Teachers, students and school administrators
participated in all activities. However, both the quantity and quality of
involvement varied among sites. Although all sites showed sustained changes in
their communities, only one community sustained and expanded all elements of the
initial pilot effort (Miller, 1995b).
LESSONS AND IMPLICATIONS
Many elements of the community and
school need attention if such community development partnerships are to be
established and sustained over time. Most important, developing a support base
in the community provides a strong foundation upon which to build lasting
community-based learning experiences. Secondly, engaging teachers in curriculum
work that links student service activities in the classroom with projects in the
community appears to be crucially important. Programs like Foxfire and REAL may
provide a beginning framework upon which to build. By helping teachers and
students see the potential of community-based learning experiences, these
programs can pave the way for greater involvement in community development.
Finally, making a long-term commitment is critically important. The ultimate
test of such community and school partnerships is the impact they have on the
lives of rural youth and adults over an extended period of partnership.
Participants must remain mindful of the fact that by building community-school
development partnerships, they are changing fundamentally the way their schools
prepare rural youth for the future.
Rural schools, working in partnership with local
leaders and residents, can have a positive impact on community viability. This
is especially true when students, working alongside adults, have opportunities
to engage in meaningful community-based learning that both serves the community
and addresses their learning needs. By building on the social capital present in
youth and schools, the community helps to develop responsible citizens for today
and skilled leaders for tomorrow.
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