Last year, in an Edutopia post, Claus von Zastrow highlighted the achievement of Detroit's Carstens Elementary School -- achievement that unfortunately has not yet spread to its greater community, which remains blighted, lacking assess to many essential services and economic opportunities.
"I'm not sure we can expect schools alone to make up for the lack of opportunity that drives people out of our struggling urban centers. ...The current rhetoric of school reform notwithstanding, you just can't expect educators to bear the whole weight of a city's decline and resurgence on their shoulders."
In a similar vein, Harvard's Mark Warren argues that the fate of urban schools and communities are intertwined, and that to truly succeed in improving either, one must simultaneously address both.
I firmly agree with that sentiment. But I don't think it applies to only urban areas. Struggling rural schools and communities face a number of challenges -- declining economic opportunities chief among them -- that call into question the effectiveness of undertaking a purely school-based reform effort to improve academic outcomes in communities where youth cannot see a prosperous future.
State officials in New Mexico seem to agree and have developed a comprehensive approach to revitalizing rural communities that puts schools -- and students-- at its core.
The New Mexico Rural Revitalization Initiative
Modeled after a successful rural revitalization program in South Australia, the New Mexico Rural Revitalization Initiative (NMRRI) engages a committee of stakeholders to participate in "extended discovery conversations" with representatives of the state's Rural Education Bureau and the Center for RelationaLearning about the future of their community.
These conversations (in which both the mayor and the superintendent of schools must participate) lead to plans to make that future a reality. It is understood that the school will play a significant role in these efforts in a number of ways -- by opening the school to the community during non-school hours, community education and involving students in the community's economic activities.
Many NMRRI sites (the program currently works with 28 of the state's 45 rural school districts) feature place-based education. Place-based education provides students with a real-world application for the content knowledge they are gaining, removing learning from confines of the school building.
Improving Community Housing
One such site is Loving, which has long suffered a housing shortage. With funding from NMRRI and the Microsoft Partners in Learning Program, interested high school students now work with experienced members of the construction industry (including carpenters, electricians, plumbers, computer programmers, and architects) to build low cost, energy efficient homes in the community. They can also enroll in related dual-credit courses in a branch of New Mexico State University. Graduates who go through the program and choose to work in their specialty can have one year of a five year journeyman requirement waived.
In addition to the work with housing, though NMRRI the Loving community has also developed a library and story-telling program and began a distance-learning program for high school seniors to expand curricular options.
A startup grant from NMRRI allowed students, teachers, administrators and community members in Fort Sumner to rebuild a school greenhouse to grow houseplants to sell. Students learned to care for the plants and develop business plans.
As nearby communities became aware of the project, they began placing orders. Soon a community member donated an empty storefront on the town's Main Street to sell plants grown at the school's greenhouse and arts and crafts created by local residents. The business, Growing Green, was sold to a local businessman but still employs the students who helped create it.
NMRRI programs are taking hold all around rural New Mexico. And as intended, it is not just the community that benefits. The program is credited with improving attendance and reducing discipline problems in rural schools. It is also credited with increasing both enrollment in adult education programs and volunteerism in schools and communities.
A general renewed interest in academic pursuits exists in these communities. And that is perhaps the greatest way in which a community can support its schools.