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Arkansas Parent: Rural Schools Give Life to Communities

  • In an opinion essay, a mom of two kids says that schools help keep rural areas vibrant and she hopes their closures can be reversed.

On April 10, busloads of students, parents, educators and patrons wearing their yellow-and-black Road Runner insignia made the 120-mile trip to the Arkansas state Capitol to listen as the Arkansas Board of Education voted to close the doors of their school. They silenced possibly forever, formal education taking place in another rural Arkansas community.

The Stephens School District, which fell below the state mandated number of 350 students, was forced to close their doors at the end of this school year as a result of Arkansas’ Act 60. 

This community story is not uncommon. School closures have happened almost 100 times since the wide-sweeping “reform” passed by Arkansas legislators more than a decade ago.

In 2003, then Gov. Mike Huckabee presented a plan to reorganize Arkansas public schools into larger districts. This legislation, known 11-years later as simply Act 60, was passed the next year, following months of political posturing against the sincere and lengthy pleas of thousands of rural Arkansans.

This act sounded the death knell for rural Arkansas’ once-thriving small towns known for community pride, service to neighbors, rural agricultural bases and solid public school systems.

Since its passage, Act 60 has shuttered at least 52 rural high schools and 41 elementary schools throughout rural Arkansas, leaving marked devastation in its path.

Buildings that pulsed for more than 80 years with the heartbeat of generations of Arkansans learning, now sit in varying states of decay throughout the state. Even proponents of consolidation have conceded the lingering damage to Arkansas’ rural areas.

Eleven years later, the effects can be seen with absolute clarity. Following the loss of a rural community school, the surrounding areas follows suit, with residuals felt in the loss of home-grown educated professionals’ flight from rural Arkansas, to pursue careers elsewhere. With the closure of rural schools, jobs are eliminated and only sometimes available at sizable distances from home.

The closure of any industry in rural America is painful and wide-reaching. Certainly the loss of 60 to 100 jobs in a rural area is devastating. News stations travel to these areas to report the financial and emotional impact projected onto, in most cases, our nation’s poorest citizens. They are those who live paycheck to paycheck to provide for their families and to stay afloat.

Now, remove their local school.

Remove the teachers who are familiar with every student’s story and can reach them individually with regard to their unique family dynamics. Replace the distance to their rural school, with a much longer commute, sometimes tripling their bus rides. Reduce parent’s ability to be an active participant in their children’s rearing and education.

Remove the jobs associated with the population forced to move away as involuntary rural flight continues. Create schools with so many children that individualized attention is a memory. And watch as those children slip through the cracks.

Elementary students in Kirby, Arkansas cheer on high school basketball players as they leave for the 2014 state tournament. Photo courtesy of Danielle Brown

Arkansas’ rural residents are organizing once again to make a push to repeal Act 60. A Facebook page, titled, “Friends of Arkansas Rural Schools and Communities” has become a social media rallying point and a way to garner support from every rural community in the state.

The residents of small-town Arkansas deserve credit for having a little common sense. They understand they have been forced to give up something very real – the stability of the areas they live in – for the privilege of submitting to reforms that have destroyed their small community’s vitality and economics and a way of life toiled over by generations and generations.

In the big picture, families, especially low-income ones, must access a greater divide to bridge the gap between poverty and middle class, as yet another rug is pulled from under their feet.

Approximately 10 more Arkansas schools have found themselves on the consolidation radar as news outlets learn student enrollment numbers have fallen below 400. Those schools are scrutinized. Panic is setting in to those communities and the cities surrounding them, as they fight through the 11th hour, for their way of life.

And thousands of families wonder if they will have a future here, at home, in Arkansas.

Danielle Brown, a mom of two preschoolers, lives in Kirby, Arkansas. Kirby community members are rallying for their school and community’s existence. They are organizing the 60th local chapter of the Rural Community Alliance, a statewide grassroots organization. In the top photograph, she is wearing the maroon shirt. The young woman in the black shirt is an exchange student 

Your Turn: What type of role do schools play in your community? How would a closure affect your neighborhood?

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