In both Warren County, North Carolina, and Iberville Parrish, Louisiana, few adults hold college degrees (13 percent in Warren County and 12 percent in Iberville Parrish) and about one-fifth of the population live below the poverty level (U.S. Census Bureau, n.d.). So it was a true civic service when high school students helped their neighbors file for the earned income tax credit as part of their federal tax returns.
The students were volunteers trained through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which helps people below a certain income level file their taxes, ensuring that they receive all tax credits and relief for which they qualify. In Iberville, students provide this help at a tax center operated within their high school. According to faculty sponsor Tracy Martin, "The earned income tax credit is intended to help people get ahead, but it's one of the most expensive forms when completed by a paid preparer." Altogether, in 2011 the students' efforts returned more than half a million dollars to these two communities (Rural School and Community Trust, 2011).
The North Carolina and Louisiana schools' involvement in helping residents with taxes is a powerful example of the role that the school often plays in a rural community. In small towns and hamlets across the United States, rural schools serve as a focal point for transmitting shared community values and instilling in youth the ideals of citizenship and purposeful service.
Although rural school systems face daunting challenges, wonderful examples of local outreach are also found in such schools. In fact, the common thread that seems to run through outstanding rural programs is the school as a communal gathering place—not because of the brick and mortar structure, but because of the group of educators, parents, and children who interact there.
This place of honor in small towns and rural communities provides an advantage for rural educators when it comes to connecting students to their communities. As O'Neal and Cox (2002) point out in an overview of rural education,
close working relationships normally exist between the small school and its community. Hence, the staff of the school can establish an authentic identification with the community, cultivating mutual respect and understanding. (p. 13)
Through this identification, rural school faculty develop relationships that empower students and local families alike. Rural schools can tap into such a positive community attitude to create programs that not only provide for the community, but also teach citizenship skills and affirm for young people the relevance of the education system itself.
Building a Sense of "What They Have"
Part of preparing students for citizenship in rural areas is educating them about their local history as well as the challenges and promises that confront rural America in general. A related part of this preparation is enabling students to see their rural heritage as something to be proud of, not a cultural or economic albatross.
The stakes, and the needs, are often high. Rural communities have long faced the challenge of keeping talented, educated citizens in the community and providing them with economic and cultural opportunities to avoid a "brain drain" (O'Neal & Cox, 2002, p. 18). A 1995 study of college students from rural areas found that only 43 percent of them planned to return to their communities after graduation (Herzog & Pittman, 1995). And the 2010 census showed that between 2000 and 2010, a majority of rural counties in North Carolina saw their number of residents under the age of 20 decrease (Quillin, 2011).
Many rural teachers show creativity and persistence in connecting students to their communities. Virginia Krajewski, a history teacher, and her colleagues at South Platte High School in Big Springs, Nebraska, developed coursework that helped students learn more about their town. To pass Krajewski's government class, for instance, students were required to essentially "adopt" a senior citizen (other than a relative), interview the person, and write about that person's story. They also attended and reported on a civic function, such as a city council meeting, and did volunteer work in the community. The sophomore class helped to renovate a local historic hotel so that it could function as a bed and breakfast and attract travelers to the town. Krajewski knew that most of her students perceived getting ahead as getting out of town, but she said, "I want them to see what they have before they go" (Coeyman, 1999, p. 13).
Such a program could become a model for rural communities across America, where 80 percent of students say that they would be willing to participate in community service, but only 38 percent report being asked to do so (Quillin, 2011). These kinds of opportunities might even help students stay closer to home. The Rural Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, surveyed and held focus groups with rural students across the state. Their data showed that
while young people said they liked being home with family and friends and they appreciated rural communities … those communities [didn't] offer enough educational and employment opportunities, sources of entertainment or chances to participate in civic activities. (Quillin, 2011)
Like the North Carolina and Louisiana students' work with tax preparation, Krajewski's assignments encourage students to take ownership of community problems and bring their energy to bear on solutions—in other words, to think like entrepreneurs. Such ownership and innovation may be essential for rural towns' survival. As O'Neal and Cox (2002) write, "If employment opportunities are limited near a rural community, a school could shape the curriculum so that it encourages an entrepreneurial spirit among students" (p. 19).
Letting Heritage Enrich Learning
As I've discovered by living in a rural community near Boone, North Carolina, schools and the curriculum can frequently give students a deeper appreciation for rural life and culture. For example, at my daughter's school, Green Valley Elementary in Watauga County, teachers frequently assign literature connected to the realities of rural areas and reword worksheets or math problems so that they reflect challenges that apply to farming or local interests. Several years ago, my daughter's 6th grade teacher did a lesson on freedom of speech and chose for her example a country music controversy that she knew students would be aware of, the 2003 uproar following public comments the Dixie Chicks made disparaging the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Twin Rivers Community School, also in Watauga County, uses art projects to connect rural children with their community and families. For one project, art teacher Kelly Sheets Snyder prepared squares of paper the size of typical quilt squares and had each student do a self-portrait on one of the squares; during the project, she discussed the importance of quilting as both a practical and artistic activity for local families. A paper "quilt" composed of all the self-portraits was displayed at Jones House, a cultural and community center in nearby Boone. Snyder also kept in mind the economic challenges of the area as she designed a special art project that would not require the students or the school to buy any expensive materials.
The Blue Ridge Family Literacy Project, a partnership between Appalachian State University (ASU) and four Title I elementary schools from the area, seeks to make rural heritage a springboard to literacy through family storytelling, writing, and sharing (Clark, 2005).1 The elementary schools invite students and their families to a series of storytelling nights with themes like "Your Family Hero," and "Family Keepsakes." Families first gather in the school cafeteria for a meal, and then go to the computer lab to share and document their stories. Parents, grandparents, or other family adults tell a true tale on the theme to their own child as the child records the story and asks questions. Each child reads his or her family story to the whole group on subsequent nights.
At Watauga County's Mabel Elementary School, where my daughter and many of my preservice teaching students at Appalachian State University participated in family literacy nights, each university student partnered with an elementary student and helped record, type, and gather that student's family tales. As adults told the younger ones such stories as what happened when a relative returned from Vietnam, and parents chatted and bonded with one another over dinner, students came to see how strongly their family was embedded within a larger community. They knew that their stories mattered. The power of the school to affirm the community's togetherness and pride was evident.
Participating students also learned skills that they could draw on in their future school and career lives: interviewing techniques, document preparation and editing, listening skills, and public speaking (Clark, 2005). Because each student read his or her story aloud many times as the stories were polished for the presentation, each student became confident reading aloud. Mabel Elementary School principal Brenda Reese noticed how the program built certain students' confidence: "It's been amazing to see the growth in some of these students. Just to see that one child get up in front of all these people and read one of his stories was worth it all."
Projects like these help show students that the education versus heritage paradigm that hangs over much of rural education is a false choice. Using the school as a community hub and taking advantage of the area's cultural heritage helped the Blue Ridge Family Literacy Project become that rare educational endeavor that didn't just take place in a community but actually became part of that community.
Claiming Good Things
Being Pollyannas about rural education won't lessen our challenges, but neither must we turn into Chicken Littles. Good things happen in rural schools every day. These good things come about because of dedicated teachers, involved parents, self-sacrificing communities, and best of all, engaged and engaging students.
In fact, rural schools display many of the qualities that people committed to improving education believe we need most in schools—qualities like leadership, family loyalty, and commitment. One recent survey of rural 8th and 11th grade students found that a majority of them listed "helping others" as their number-one criterion for good citizenship (Martin & Chiodo, 2007). From Nebraska to North Carolina, rural students understand that their communities face tremendous challenges—and realize how much those communities need them.
Clark, A. (2005, October). Writing about family matters. Reflections, 21–22.
Coeyman, M. (1999, January 5). Getting kids to stay. Christian Science Monitor.
Herzog, M. J., & Pittman, R. B. (1995). Home, family and community. Phi Delta Kappan, 77(2), 113–119.
Martin, L., & Chiodo, J. J. (2007). Good citizenship: What students in rural schools have to say about it. Theory and Research in Social Education, 35(1), 112–134.
O'Neal, L., & Cox, D. (2002). Then and now: Small rural schools revisited. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. (ERIC No. ED464769).
Quillan, M. (2011, November 17). Rural towns wonder how to keep kids; Forum's advice: Give the young a chance. The Raleigh News and Observer [Kindle edition].
Rural School and Community Trust (2011, June). Rural students channel hundreds of thousands of dollars to their communities. Rural Policy Matters, 13(6). Retrieved from www.ruraledu.org/articles.php?id=2716
U.S. Census Bureau (n.d.) State and County QuickFacts [Online database]. Retrieved from http://quickfacts.census.gov
James A. Bryant Jr. is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.
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