This article appeared in The Gazette-Democrat on May 1, 2017. Continuing Ed. is a yearlong, statewide series of free public programs that puts parents and schools back at the center of conversations addressing difficult questions. You can find the original article here.
Illinois Humanities, in partnership with the Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools, presented a free public program called The Future of Rural Public Schools at Egyptian High School in Tamms on Tuesday, April 25.
Egyptian seniors Daneesha Carthell, Tyra Huff and Kacia Houston, representatives of the Beta Club, gave a short presentation about their club.
The students emphasized their volunteer work with the Thebes Historical Society, the Tour de Shawnee and blood drives.
The senior Beta Club won nine awards at state convention and are currently raising funds for their trip to national convention in Florida.
Gary Funk, the director of the Rural Schools Collaborative, began the conversation with a presentation.
He asked the three students what they think their school would look like in 10 years.
They unanimously said that they foresaw consolidation with surrounding schools, including Cairo, Century and Meridian.
A member of the crowd reacted by remembering the consolidation of the small town schools into what is now Egyptian and how now those small towns are no longer vibrant with activity.
Funk pointed out several things that are weakening rural schools: depopulation, social and capital flight, farm consolidation, loss of small businesses and lack of entrepreneurship.
He also explained how sustaining rural public schools has a unique set of challenges.
He suggested that public funding for education has been under attack since the 1980s, the accountability systems that are in place are inappropriate for small schools, there are teacher shortages, especially in STEM and special needs, outdated models are being adhered to and the local prioritization isn’t present.
Funk said that public schools are why small towns exist. He believes families and entrepreneurs will not relocate unless they feel good about the local schools.
The school system in rural areas are often the largest employer.
Funk believes there are several things schools and the community can do to save rural schools, like contact legislators and tell them what’s important to their community.
He also said to support place-based engagement and learning, build school-centered rural philanthropy and work on a recruitment preparation for rural teacher-leaders.
After his presentation, the floor was open for public discussion.
One topic was keeping graduates from leaving the area.
One participant said unless their students were in a field like education, farming or health care, there wasn’t much opportunity in the area.
It was noted that celebrating alumni was one way to bring people back to their hometown.
A discussion about raising funds on their own was brought up, for example, through the establishment of a school foundation.
While an overall consensus was not obtained at the meeting, several members of the community and staff members voiced several ideas on how to strengthen their rural school.