Recently there have been hard and controversial decisions in Wyoming about school districts. With a depressed economy some choices have to be made, but sometimes it pays to look at the research on the connections between schools and communities. Growing up in Wyoming and Montana led me to agree that the next to last thing to fade from a community in rural areas was a bar. The very last thing to fade out was the Post Office. But in reality I have always felt that loss of the school and a church were the cancer that destroyed the fabric of our communities.
Rural sociologists have spent considerable time studying this de-evolution of rural communities and one of the most concise research results is “The Role of Rural Schools in Community Development: Policy Issues and Implications” by Dr. Bruce A. Miller who spent years conducting social research at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Oregon. This paper can be found at http://jrre.vmhost.psu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/11-3_3.pdf .
Within the paper, a team studies the “social capital” generated by having a school in a community and what effects its sustenance or loss has on community vigor, identity, economics and stability. One of the towns used for study was Broadus, Montana, which I am very familiar with. The paper reviews five years of study and Dr. Miller encourages policy makers to rethink the role of the school in communities. This multi-year study identified a number of the important facets of school linkages which I felt my grandmother could have pronounced without the costly study.
The study reconfirmed that the presence of a good school within a community is one major element in people’s decision on where to live, work and pay taxes. This directly feeds into community infrastructure and improvement.
It was also found that residents tended to be more committed to serving community roles on boards and advisory groups if a school was present within a community. This invigorated representation, community involvement and ownership within communities.
Communities with their own schools tended to have a more cohesive identity and work to support their children, school programs, and improvement projects through donations, program support and participation.
The teachers within community schools develop a stronger relationship with parents in a community school leading to better student coaching, problem resolution, and academic performance.
Communities which had their own school are more likely to design, develop and support enhanced and interactive after-school and academic programs that not only broaden student learning and performance but also add diversity and entrepreneurial opportunities to both youth and adults. Many of these are novel and creative educational programs that let our youth excel and move higher.
Community schools are easily identified as the nexus if social meetings, clubs, and local activities which benefit businesses, income, families and visitors.
Communities with schools often have an opportunities to collaborate with students to develop their community farther and try new ideas. Youth and parents are some of the most effective advocates for community development. When they are transferred that energy seems to dissipate according to this and several other studies listed as resources on this document.
These studies I refer to are over 20 years old but have been proved out many times over the years. The bottom line according to this research is that when you move schools out of a community you transfuse its lifeblood to another location. Gratefully, some instances such as Midwest were only on life support for months and seem to be regaining vigor. When a community is considering changing a school structure it pays to look at the research and consider what elements of said community might be affected before making a decision. Wyoming is making an effort to diversify and develop our communities for better stability. University of Wyoming Extension has always been about learning, communities, families, and youth. It’s why I work here.