Can students do rural community development?

by Steve Wyckoff on November 30, 2010

Several things have become clear to me when thinking about school change in rural America. I’ve been listening to conversations about declining enrollment for over 20 years. During that time I’ve facilitated goal setting for many boards of education in rural communities. Most of them have a discussion during that goal setting about stealing students from their neighbors. Few, if any, succeed consistently at this goal.

I’ve been thinking about this issue differently over the last year. What we really need to do is to attract new residents to our rural communities. Not an easy task, but it can be done. We do have new families move into our rural communities, just not often enough (visit Mergenthaler’s website for more data).

So recently I began to think about this issue from the perspective of a family considering a move to rural America. I think, generally speaking, a family would consider two things in deciding where to relocate.

First, they would want to know about the schools. If it were me, I would want to know what the school could do to help my child become remarkable. No, most parents wouldn’t use the word remarkable, but I think that’s what all of us want for our kids. Unfortunately, we usually settle for our kids surviving the system.

Secondly, they would want to know what the community had to offer. Would my family fit in? Would we be welcomed? Are there things to do, that we enjoy doing? Are the amenities present that we need to live the lifestyle that we desire? Will our finances go further than they did in the city?

A couple of thoughts about answering these questions. First of all our rural communities need to be thinking from this perspective, and as a community take action to develop our community. The same things that would attract a new family will be attractive to the current residents.

This is also a great opportunity to engage our students in real-world experiences that are meaningful and engaging, and at the same time prepare them for the real world. There is no reason that our students couldn’t be involved in all aspects of community development. Their activities would not only be of benefit to the community, but would also facilitate the learning and application of academic skills in a real-world setting.

The new key component  that I’ve learned over the last year is how people find what they want in the 21st century. The first thing we do today when we want to find something is Google it. So we need to teach our rural communities and our schools how to present themselves so that they’re found on Google.

The second part of that key component is social networking. Over 200 million Americans are on Facebook. Our schools and communities need to have a presence on Facebook and work diligently to spread the word about our schools and communities through Facebook and other social media.

As we consider school change it is imperative that we also consider community development, and how to market our schools and communities in the 21st century. Kansas, and almost all of the other 49 states, have substantial rural populations and there is no reason that we can’t educate our kids better and at the same time develop and market our rural communities. Now that would be real school change. – Steve Wyckoff

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