School Consolidation and Small Town Population

I received an email through the loper email system from Charlie Bicak, Senior Vice Chancellor of Academic and Student Affairs.  The email invited students to the Rural Education Symposium that will be held in Kearney on April 5th and 6th.  UNK is partnering with NU’s Center for Great Plains Studies to host the 39th annual symposium, but this is the first time in Kearney.  Everyone is welcome to attend the event and UNK faculty, students, and staff are encouraged to attend.  

This year’s theme is “Gains and Losses from School Consolidation in the Great Plains.”  “How do we sustain the vitality of rural schools and rural communities?  What are the causes and consequences of school consolidation? How do we support the success of rural students?” are all questions that will be addressed at the symposium.  The keynote speaker, Paul Theobald, has published many books on community-and place-based education.  His speaking topic will be “Rural Schools and Communities at the Intersection of Assumptions and Evidence.”  More than two dozen other speakers, including Gov. Dave Heineman, rural education researcher Marty Strange, school district superintendents, and university deans, will be giving presentations.  Some fun will be added to the symposium including a public concert by the Hutchins Consort, a photography exhibit at the Museum of Nebraska Art, and sandhill crane watching.

I almost passed over this email, but the first two lines caught my eye, “One-third of American children attend school in rural or small towns.”  Hmm, that actually pertained to me, so I kept reading.  “Three-fourths of these schools have fewer than 2,000 students.”  I graduated from a class of around 40, counting exchange students.  The message, “Many communities in the Great Plains have been losing population for nearly a century.  School consolidation is an approach already chosen by many school districts while others struggle to find different strategies.  What are the options and how can we support rural schools?”  It was that message that got me to read the entire message AND decide I wanted to attend the event.  Unfortunately I can’t make it because I will be attending another conference that same weekend.

So now that I gave you all the conference information, I will tell you why I care.  I will start with the issue of population.  As I previously mentioned I come from a small town, actually it’s a village.  The town of Deweese has roughly around 60 people.  The town has a grain elevator, a bar called The Mill, a post office (which might be closing), Blackshirts Liquor store, and a Catholic church.  My school, Sandy Creek, is five towns consolidated with the school in the center, on top of a hill next to a cornfield.  The towns are Deweese, Fairfield, Edgar, Glenvil, and as of my senior year, Clay Center.  

Back in the day all of these towns had a large enough population for their own school.  Fairfield had a hospital, college, and many other businesses until a tornado hit in 1908.  An article on GenDisasters said, “more than forty buildings were more or less wrecked and some of them, were entirely demolished.  The loss there will exceed $100,000. ”  It’s interesting to think about what this town might have been like if the tornado hadn’t come through.  Maybe the college and hospital would still be going today, creating jobs in the area, which would bring in and keep more families.  

Right now the people that live in the area are farmers, people who have grown up there, families who run the few businesses in town, a handful of teachers, and any newcomers seem to be druggies who live in the rundown houses and junk up the yards.  Seriously though, I’m not even joking.  When I was in elementary school the school bus drove by a meth lab everyday to pick up the students who lived across the street.    

There is a lady in town nicknamed “The Crazy Lady.”  To help you see while this description is pretty spot on I will tell you a few stories.  She is like 50 or 60 and has been known to offer sex for money.  She wears short skirts, hooker boots, fish net tights, and sometimes it’s quite visible that she chooses to go without certain undergarments.  She painted bible verses on her house and decided to open up a bed and breakfast.  Not sure she has had a whole lot of business.  One day she got the cops called on her because she was sunbathing naked and she told the cops that her doctor said the best cure for herpes is natural sunlight.  Well then!  By all means carry on!  Some people just don’t have a clue…or an ounce of decency.  

So what about this town is inviting?  There are little to no jobs.  A limited selection of houses, most of which have been junked up and abandoned for so long no one in their right mind would want to live in them.  I don’t ever see the population rising.  Instead I see it decreasing.  Kids will grow up and move away and the families living there will grow old.  The only thing that will keep it alive is if newer generations of farmers keep coming in and raising their families here.  

Back to more of the school issues.  I’m not going to pretend like I know a lot about the financials of running a school.  So instead I will tell you about my experience.  Numbers are so small that in order to offer cross country and wrestling we had to combine with another nearby school, Lawrence Nelson (just for those sports).  My junior year there was plans to consolidate Sandy Creek and Clay Center.  Clay Center had as few as 6 high school students in a class.  There was so much controversy over which facility would be used, which teachers would be kept, and if the name would be changed.  

The Clay Center community were losing their school and they felt like they were losing their identity.  They wanted their traditions and legacy to be continued.  Which for that I felt bad.  Many felt like Sandy Creek should have to change their name and mascot.  This would have meant changing the sign out front of school, the gym floors, the hallways and lockers, all sports uniforms, marching band uniforms, choir robes, etc.  Personally I didn’t care if we had to change our name or our mascot, but it didn’t seem like it was worth the trouble or the large amount of money that would be wasted to replace what was already new, up-to-date, or in good shape.  I found the more important issues being academics.  How about we spend this extra money on offering new classes or college credit classes?

What I thought was funny was that it wasn’t so much the current students who had a huge problem with the merge or concerns about the name, colors, and mascot, it was the alumni and parents.  The students from Clay Center who joined my senior class also weren’t too thrilled.  Understandably they wanted to graduate from THEIR school.  I tried to imagine what it would be like to have to go to “someone else’s school.”  Maybe I didn’t have enough school spirit because a change in building or name, to me, didn’t mean losing your history, your friends, or a quality education.

My class was able to combine some traditions.  Clay Center students usually passed down a key to the underclassmen at prom and my class started passing it down at graduation.  We were able to combine talents and be great at many things.  It became the first year that Sandy Creek competed at state journalism, where we received third, the next year we medalled.  Some more classes like graphic design were offered, in which we also gained some new high tech equipment.  

The consolidation meant that Clay Center’s junior high and high school came to Sandy Creek, but the elementary was able to stay at Clay Center’s facility.  This coming year, three years after consolidating, even more changes will occur.  For the first time their will be a middle school with grades 6-8 attending school at Clay Center’s facility.  The high school will have much more classrooms to work with.  They have also implemented many college level classes and next year they will be doing some exciting things with technology.  All elementary students will receive iPads to use at school, junior high will get to use individual laptops at school, and high schoolers will get individual laptops that they will be allowed to use at school and take home.  

Some good things can come from consolidation, even though at times it feels like you may be losing your identity and what you have worked so hard to create and achieve.  I think this is such an important issue to think about because in the future even more rural schools will most likely be consolidating.  School buildings are getting older and might be too costly to update and classroom sizes are dwindling down.  What I’m interested in is if my school will ever combine with any other of the nearby school and how far is too far in terms of combining and students traveling to school? 

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