HAYS, KS -- Three national educational leaders had advice Thursday for small school districts and small communities that are struggling to survive. They spoke at the inaugural symposium, "Preserving the Future of Rural Schools and Communities on the Plains," on the campus of Fort Hays State University.
Dr. Paul Theobald, the Woods-Beals Chair for Urban and Rural Education at Buffalo State College in New York, conceded that the problems facing rural America were highly complex, but he asserted: "There's nothing inevitable about this decline."
Dr. Rachel Tomkins, president of the Rural School and Community Trust, was even more emphatic, denouncing what she called the three myths that contribute to failure in rural America:
*Bigger is better.
*Small is too costly.
*And, the locals are too dumb to run their own schools.
Tompkins said studies have shown that the states with the most school districts and the most small schools have the highest graduation rates and the best test scores. She said enriched curriculums and financial savings have not resulted, as promised, when schools are consolidated. And, she urged rural leaders to organize, form coalitions and celebrate their successes.
" Decline is a condition, not a fate," she said. "The choices people make determine whether you can halt decline in population. We in small schools know how to do things that big schools don't know how to do."
Theobald said the policies that harm rural America have "pretty well been defined by complete indifference to the welfare of communities." He added: "We can't change that unless rural people come together and say we're not going to put up with that anymore. If it has an adverse effect on our community, we won't do it."
Dr. Vena Long, professor of mathematics education at the University of Tennessee, advocated strongly during the day-long symposium that the teaching of mathematics had a crucial role to play in the survival of rural schools and communities. "All of these things take mathematics to communicate them, take mathematics to resolve them," she said of the economic challenges that threaten rural areas. "It's all based on math. It all comes down to the numbers. We need an expanded vision of community."
Dr. Ed Mills, dean of FHSU's College of Education and Technology, said the inspiration for the symposium came from FHSU's interest in assisting the state's many outstanding small school districts. He said the university works closely with those districts not only toward preservation but in renewing and strengthening their futures. "Today was a great conversation, and we need to keep it going," he said, adding that planning had already begun for next year's second annual symposium.
In addition to the keynote addresses, the symposium included "hot topics sessions" such as "Engaging the Public on Educational Issues" and "School/Community Entrepreneurs: Strengths of Working Together."
Dr. Chapman Rackaway, assistant professor of political science at FHSU and campus coordinator for the American Democracy Project, conducted one of the break-out sessions on the topic, "Building Active and Engaged Citizens in Rural Communities."
" I'm excited to be part of this discussion as we strive to find strategies for building and strengthening our rural communities," Rackaway said. "We need to encourage vision and build leadership to ensure stability and growth, and this conference is a key component of making that happen."
Businesses and organizations that assisted FHSU's College of Education and Technology in presenting the symposium included Rural Telephone, Nex-Tech, Golden Belt Telephone, Sunflower Electric Power Corporation and FHSU's Docking Institute of Public Affairs.
About 125 community and education leaders attended the symposium, representing a dozen or more communities throughout Kansas and Nebraska. A lively question-and-answer period at the end of the symposium showed that participants were eager to continue their efforts to find solutions for the problems that face rural Kansas.
" The best thing about the day has been the opportunity to share possibilities," said Ralene Keller, president of the Wild West Foundation of Logan County in Oakley.
" I think it's been valuable because rural schools and communities need to band together," said Gayla Wichman, president of the USD 388 Board of Education in Ellis. "A meeting like this gives us a foundation and acts as a catalyst for how to define our future instead of having our future decided for us."