Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

To Establish the Bonds of Common Purpose and Mutual Enjoyment

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

To Establish the Bonds of Common Purpose and Mutual Enjoyment

Article excerpt

A QUIET renaissance is going on in parts of rural America as people are beginning to claim and build on their own strengths. New ways of educating young people are linked with ways communities can help themselves thrive. Traditional "neighborliness" is expanding into broad-scale collaboration. Community members of every age are working together to reform education, revitalize communities, and improve the quality of life for themselves and others. This article describes longterm work with demonstrable outcomes, and newer, smaller-scale efforts that show promise. It concludes with a synthesis of what seems to be important across projects.


The PACERS (Program for Academic and Cultural Enhancement of Rural Schools) Cooperative of Small Schools, sponsored by the Program for Rural Services and Research (PRSR) at the University of Alabama, is the culmination of years of partnerships between the PRSR and rural communities across the state.(1) Under the direction of Jack Shelton, the PRSR has based its work on the following set of values:

* rural communities are important,

* rural people can speak for themselves, and

* the Program for Rural Services and Research will listen and respond.

Between I979 and 1992, the PRSR followed this philosophy in dozens of collaborative projects with rural communities. Centered mainly on education and health, these projects included a low-cost distance learning project, creative writing programs in which rural students write books about themselves and their communities, projects to develop playgrounds, launch school newspapers, and improve school libraries; communication through research, conferences, and a newsletter; the development of an association of small schools; and a scholarship program offering specially designed courses requested by rural teachers, including those leading to additional certifications in foreign language and library services.

These projects gave the PRSR opportunities to function in rural communities add to listen and learn. In the process PRSR staff members developed close relationships with students and community residents and an intimate knowledge of communities from Alabama's Appalachia to the Black Belt to the Wiregrass. It was clear that rural communities that still had schools were healthier and had stronger local economies than similar communities without schools. Students in small community schools fared far better academically and personally than those in distant consolidated schools. PRSR staff members observed that small rural schools, regardless of demographics, possessed similar strengths: close ties to their communities, supportive and inclusive environments; and a flexibility, responsiveness, and degree of student and parent participation born of small size. They also faced the common problems of poverty; isolation; inappropriate, externally imposed standards that were draining communities of resources and allowing indigenous skills to wither; and the constant threat of consolidation. PRSR was convinced that, if schools could work together, they could address shared problems and build on their common strengths.

To these ends, PRSR began organizing the PACERS Cooperative in 1991 with support from the Lyndhurst and Ford Foundations. Through a series of planning meetings in each of the 29 schools with K-12 enrollments ranging in size from 180 to 600 students, PRSR staff members asked teachers, community residents, and students to reflect together on the strengths, resources, and needs of their school, their community, and its young people. Participants then shared their dreams for their schools and communities and discussed how they might use their resources to meet these needs.

In almost every school the conversation about needs turned to basic human requirements: better food, more adequate housing, good and meaningful work for local residents. Participants expressed a sense of loss and worry about the decline in understanding of plant and animal life, food production, conservation - skills that have undergirded rural cultures and sustained urban life. …

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