How rural schools can inspire students to value their small towns–not just flee them

This is an interview with Gary Funk, the founding Director of Rural Schools Collaborative, based in Cambridge, Wisconsin. The interview was conducted by Ryan Fowler of TNTP. A longer version of this post appeared on the TNTP blog

Q: Can you talk about your background in rural education, and how you got involved with Rural Schools Collaborative?

A: I began as an elementary school teacher in a small Ozarks town. From there, for nearly a decade I worked with several other small towns and rural school districts on literacy issues. I slowly came to see the relationships schools had with their communities were instrumental beyond just student success in the classroom—the community and the school really depended on each other. When you get down to it, if the purpose of a public school isn’t to strengthen the community, why are we doing this? Surely, it’s not just about rewarding the ten brightest kids and sending them off packing to an urban area. It became evident to us early on that it was important we work to strengthen the bonds between schools and communities as over the past few decades some of the traditional linkages had weakened. We also did work around community-based philanthropy and included a variety of community groups and partners in discussing education as an economic necessity for rural places—because so much money is leaving our rural communities.

Q: I’m interested in the comment you made about school to community linkages disappearing. What would you attribute this to?

A: Three things come to mind. First, the nature of school boards and politics in general has changed. If you look from the 1970s on, trust in the political process and confidence in government has evolved—I think that’s a pretty safe statement to make in 2017. And alongside that, the essence of leadership in public education has changed, too. In southern Missouri, I’ve seen school boards become more agenda driven—I think the political process has a lot to do with that. Also, I think the economics of rural towns has changed as well, and not necessarily in the best ways. Many of the children of families that had assets and wealth in small towns have left for places like Minneapolis or Chicago or Nashville or New York City or wherever, and that’s created a void. Lastly, the way we judge schools has changed. While … we want schools to be as healthy as possible and teachers to be as effective as possible, some of these accountability measures are not necessarily relevant when it comes to what goes on in small towns.

Q: I’m curious what examples you’ve seen of schools in rural communities using education as a lever for development and civic engagement, despite facing some of the headwinds you mentioned.

A: I was just in southern Illinois, way down in southern Illinois, which is more like Kentucky and Tennessee than Chicago—the Little Egypt area. And it was evident that, while these two communities were really struggling—one town’s Main Street was basically boarded up—the schools were thriving and healthy and well cared for. And these are very rural towns. I’m talking populations in the hundreds. Our country has scores and scores of places like these—and it’s obvious to me that often many of the valuable things happening in these communities revolve around the schools. We talk about the state of education and the need to improve education, and we talk about rural schools suffering, but the thing is, a lot of these schools are doing really well—some of them against all odds. I’m sure there are things these schools can be doing better, but we really need to start accentuating the assets that we have in public education in rural places and use it as a foundation, if you will, for strengthening these communities and building these communities back up.

Q: I know one of the ways Rural Schools Collaborative encourages connectedness between the school and its surrounding community is through place-based education. For readers hearing about it for the first time, can you describe place-based education and talk about why it’s valuable in rural communities?

A: The key to understanding place-based is recognizing that students are curious about things which have meaning to them. The idea is, if you connect learning goals and instruction to things that have relevance to students—and if you can do that in a way that also strengthens the community and engages people from the community in the educational process—the benefits are numerous. We’re talking about learning that’s embedded in the community or engages the community. Place-based gets kids thinking about where they are and encourages them to get involved in their community.

Where rural schools do have an advantage—and we talk about the rural advantage quite a bit—is that access to place should be a little simpler. If you’re in the Parkway district in St. Louis and you want to get hither and yon, that becomes a much more bureaucratic endeavor than if you’re in Cambridge, Wisconsin where you can walk out the door of the elementary school, take a two-minute walk down an uncrowded street, and there’s a stream right there—a great learning tool for a science class, for example. Place-based allows students and teachers to create their own stories in ways that give students an appreciation for where they live. That doesn’t mean every bright kid from Tamms, Illinois is going to want to stay in Tamms, but at the very least they’re learning about what makes their town great, and hopefully a little about why it’s worth preserving.

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Gary Funk

Gary Funk

Gary Funk is the founding Director of Rural Schools Collaborative and formerly worked at the the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, a rural philanthropy innovator. Gary spent two decades in public and higher education as a teacher, professor, and administrator. While at Missouri State University, he co-founded the Southwestern Bell Literacy Center, the Storefront School for at-risk children, and the Center for Outstanding Schools. He and his wife, Jana, live on a small farm near Cambridge, Wisconsin, where they have been engaged in conservation work and community philanthropy. They have two grown children

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