Committing to Community
How investing in your local community strengthens your schools.
Think about the last time you took a road trip and drove through small towns in the countryside. Remember the flags, emblazoned with the local mascot, flying from every front porch? Or the weathered banner strung across the small downtown square that read “Wildcat Pride”? Maybe you live in one of these rural communities yourself, experiencing that local pride and school spirit every day.
It’s no surprise that rural and small schools are so central to their communities. They always have been. In his book The One Best System, education historian David B. Tyack shares the perspective of a Kansas settler in the 1870s, who described the local one-room schoolhouse as “the center—educational, social, dramatic, political, and religious—of a pioneer community.” Schools were the sites of church services, spelling bees, dances, and debates. Nearly every aspect of life converged on this single building.
Times have certainly changed, and so has public education—but it seems that in many rural communities and small towns, these intertwining connections between school and daily life have remained. But why? From the outside, you might assume that these relationships just happen in close-knit areas. But if you live and work in one of these districts, you know—being the heart of your community is difficult, intentional work.
Building the kind of community that waves your banner in the street takes more than providing quality education. It takes more than a particular size or locale. What it takes is a serious investment of time, resources, effort, and care. When you invest in your local community, that community will invest in your schools.
Invest your space.
While researching for her book Why Rural Schools Matter, professor and author Dr. Mara Casey Tieken spent significant time conducting interviews in rural communities. One such community was Delight, Arkansas, a tiny town southwest of Little Rock with a population of 274. At the time of Tieken’s visits, Delight’s high school—much like the one-room schoolhouse of days gone by—was the hub around which the rest of the town revolved. Locals crowded the campus for basketball and baseball games, school plays, and holiday carnivals.
But it wasn’t just school-related activities that took place there. “The school is very good about letting the facilities be used for other things,” one community member told Tieken. “If you have a family reunion or something like that, you’re in the cafeteria.” During her time in town, Tieken heard of the school being used for everything from a fundraiser for the Delight Fire Department to a “cemetery dinner”—the proceeds of which would, naturally, go toward the maintenance of the town’s lone cemetery. “The campus seems to be open to anyone who wants or needs to use it,” she writes. “This kind of open, shared use seems to mark the school as a communal space.”
Let’s be honest—the current state of school security might limit who you can allow into your schools. Safety, of course, comes first. But as much as possible, it’s important to develop the mindset that your community has shared ownership of your learning spaces.
You could start by actively inviting the community into your schools—and not just for open houses and parent-teacher conferences. Take, for example, the student-led Leadership Day at Nash Elementary, one of the more rural schools in Texas’ Texarkana ISD. Part of the district’s Leader in Me program, this event welcomes families onto campus to walk through a day in the life of a Nash student. Kids get to guide visitors through their school projects, goals, and plans for achieving them—while community members get an inside look at what really happens in their school building. It’s a win-win.
These tours consistently draw quite the crowd—including families who are otherwise disengaged. And more often than not, people leave with something positive to say about Nash. As Texarkana ISD superintendent Dr. Doug Brubaker puts it, “Success stories breed community.” And community, in turn, breeds success stories.
Invest your money.
If you’re leading a rural or small district (and maybe even if you’re not), you’re probably one of the most significant financial forces in your area. Your district may employ more people than any other business in town, and it may be the area’s biggest consumer, too. We can most clearly see the economic importance of a school when it’s taken away. Research indicates that when districts consolidate and an area loses its school, local property values decline, retail sales go down, and per capita income lowers.
As we all know, money is power—and with power comes responsibility. Even if your district isn’t the sole economic anchor in your area, how and where you spend your funds impacts not just your students, but your entire local community.
Recently retired from the superintendency at New York’s Lake Placid Central School District, Dr. Roger Catania has a unique view of the ethics of school spending. His perspective begins with a single question: “What can schools do about educational inequality and social inequity,” he asks, “not just in the world at large, but also here in our own schools and communities?” It’s a complicated question without one clear answer, but for Catania, combatting that inequity means carefully choosing who to do business with.
In his 2019 paper “Incentivizing Equality through Educational Expenditures,” originally published in the AASA Journal of Scholarship & Practice, Catania makes his case. He argues that by continuing to do business with vendors with inequitable practices, schools are actually contributing to the disparities that hold their own students and communities back.
The answer? Pledge to do business only with companies that meet a standard of equitable, family-friendly work practices. Catania suggests several benchmarks: reduced wage gaps, increased minimum wages, paid sick days, and family health insurance, just to name a few.
At Lake Placid Central—a district with less than 600 students—Catania didn’t expect a shift in spending to send reverberations of change through huge national corporations. But at the local level, this could really make a difference. “We like to do business with local organizations,” he tells us. “We like to purchase from our independent bookstore, for example, rather than Amazon.” Jeff Bezos is unlikely to miss that money, but for the mom-and-pop store in town, it’s practically a windfall.
And insisting upon these equity standards even for local businesses is also a way to care for the district’s own students and families. Especially in a small town, it’s likely that many of your students’ parents and caregivers work in those establishments. Incentivizing these businesses to provide livable wages, health insurance, and other essential benefits can help improve quality of life for your district’s families—and, in doing so, improve academic outcomes.
If you’re not ready to make Catania’s pledge, start small. Examine your spending and see what you could buy locally. Rather than heading to Walmart to buy cookies for your back-to-school night, consider ordering from a bakery in town. Hire a local sports outfitter to make your jerseys instead of a national company. Putting that money back into your local economy is a great way to show your community you’re invested in their success, even outside of school.
Invest in the future.
Money is not the only resource in which your schools and local businesses have a shared interest. There’s another resource that matters even more: your students. As future professionals and business leaders, they can ultimately keep your community healthy and thriving—but only if you keep them in the area. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
At Le Grand Union Elementary School District in rural California, superintendent Scott Borba has seen the effects of “brain drain” on his local community. “For so many years we’ve told students: Get a college degree and you can make money anywhere! You can go work in San Francisco. You can work in Chicago,” he tells us. “And, unfortunately, they have.”
That dwindling of talent can slowly wear away at a community, especially a small, rural one. But as a school leader, you have a lot of power to reverse this situation. It starts with making students aware of the opportunities that exist in their own backyards—and helping them seize those opportunities.
That’s exactly what Columbus Public Schools in rural Nebraska is doing with their STEM education pathways. “Nebraska, and Columbus in particular, is heavy in manufacturing, automotive, and construction,” says Nicole Anderson, the district’s Marketing and Foundation Director. “Those are the jobs we need here. We also have a lot of students who aren’t really interested in a four-year college program. They like to work with their hands, and skills pay the bills.”
So the district started having conversations with companies in the area, trying to determine what jobs local industry needed to fill. Then, they built out career pathways designed to train students for those jobs in particular. “Everything was designed in partnership with the businesses in our community,” Anderson explains. And those companies helped fund the project as well, donating about $900,000 to get the program off the ground.
Many of these pathways directly connect students with local organizations, too. For example, after finding out that nearly 40% of their students were interested in healthcare, the district developed a pathway with the local hospital. “By the end of their junior year, students are certified nurse assistants,” Anderson tells us. “After that, they’re doing workforce rotations at our hospital.” CNA license in hand, students can easily get a job at any hospital—but they already have connections with the one in town.
In Le Grand, Borba is hoping to help even younger students connect with local industry and culture. “The crux of our economy in the Central Valley is agriculture,” he says, “and I can’t believe how many kids don’t have any clue about farming.”
So Borba is working on plans for an outdoor classroom, “where students can start learning what the community is surrounded by.” He’s in talks with the local Le Grand Garden Club, hoping they’ll help teach students about pollination, crop science, and orchard science. “We just want to get our students interacting with what happens locally,” he tells us. If kids grow up appreciating the benefits and opportunities of their hometowns, they’re more likely to stay—and their communities will be better for it.
Schools—rural or urban, big or small—need their communities. Districts can’t survive without teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, or custodians—not to mention enough students to fill the classrooms. They can’t grow without the support, both emotional and financial, that only their communities have the power to provide.
But it’s also true that communities need their schools. Just like that one-room schoolhouse on the plains of Kansas, you can and do provide so much more than education. So as much as you can, go above and beyond. Let your local area see the benefits of a district that invests in them. The more you do, the stronger your community—and their support for your schools—will become.
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