Eight years ago, administrators of a rural school in northeastern Minnesota faced a big decision. Birch Grove Elementary School in Tofte, Minn., was too small to be cost effective in the Cook County Independent School District 166. Birch Grove sits about 30 miles from the town of Grand Marais. The decision seemed obvious: close Birch Grove.
But that cure turned out to be deadlier than the disease. Fewer than three dozen students from Tofte, Lutsen and Schroeder had to be bused to a neighboring school, many of them traveling an hour and a half each way, leaving them exhausted and depleted.
The community pushed for another solution and the Birch Grove Foundation was born.
The foundation is a private entity that helps raise money for Birch Grove Elementary School, which has reopened and is now serving 23 students. The foundation builds partnerships with local businesses and organizations, and uses the school facility to help defray costs.
Foundation co-directors Lisa Hoff and Diane Hansen run the foundation, lease the one-story building from the district, and then lease a portion back to the district for school use.
One classroom is used for K-2 students and another room houses grades 3-5 students The rest of the building includes a computer lab, a medical clinic, and business and community uses such as a senior citizen center which offers intergenerational education to the youngsters.
"Birch Grove has as many strikes against it" now as it did when it was closed in 1986, Hansen says. "It has low numbers; we live in a tourist area; there's a high cost of living; and it's a high retirement population."
But the school offers what few urban or suburban schools can't: A place where children learn from each other in part through buddy programs where older students help younger students read or simply help them pull on bulky winter coats and pants, Hansen says. Not only are they performing well academically, Hansen says, students grow up respecting and helping others.
The district pays the two teachers' salaries while the foundation covers utilities, maintenance, snow plowing, garbage collection and custodial services. The foundation raises money from lease space as well as from fundraisers, such as spaghetti dinners and brick campaigns, billboard advertisements, and running a hostel for youths. The state's so-called Sparsity aid is paid to help outlying rural schools, and in this case, aids two schools in the district.
And as small a school as it is, it compliments the rural area.
"Businesses have come forward and stated many times that you need an elementary school to attract workers and keep business thriving" in the community, Hoff says.
"I think it can work in any school as long as the level of commitment is there," Hansen says. "We're lucky we do have that."
Rural = Ripe for Consolidation
When it comes to rural schools, a larger proportion of them tend to be small because they are usually situated in low-populated areas, according to Alison Yaunches, spokeswoman for Rural School and Community Trust. The trust is a national nonprofit organization that addresses the relationship between good schools and thriving rural communities. And the trend is to go small.
"The general push in education reform [now] is to go back to smaller schools," Yaunches says. Even in districts that have moved toward consolidation, particularly in West Virginia since 1990, it shows to be a not-so-wonderful choice. Research "proved that all promises of consolidation didn't play out," Yaunches says. "There's an increase in busing costs, it didn't offset the cost of closing the school, the number of administrators increased, and the number of kids decreased."
"Consolidation isn't the answer and there are so many reasons on our end showing that community schools are better."
Smaller is seen as a better solution to large monstrosities of buildings, where kids are alienated, crime is more prevalent, and students tend to drop out more often, says author and former educator Barbara Kent Lawrence, who wrote The Hermit Crab Solution. This book, published by AEL, exposes some creative alternatives for improving rural schools and keeping them open.
Even so, more states are looking to consolidate small schools. "It comes from the misunderstanding that we outline in Dollars & Sense: The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools study, says Lawrence, a co-author.
"There is a mantra that people spout because they believe it is true. They think 'We'll save all this money by consolidating the school' but a lot of things happen to be expensive."
For example, Nebraska legislators, which has many rural schools, proposed last year to close all the small schools in the state. Communities fought it and the legislation was axed, Lawrence says. But nearly 950 school districts in the state have closed in the last 30 years, according to TheIndependent.com news wire. And there are fewer districts in the state than there have been since the Civil War.
When small, rural schools shut down, students often take long bus rides to school, as they did in Tofte, Minn., or they need to find transportation, or they just can't take part in after-school activities due to such issues. "That erodes their participation in the life of the school itself," Lawrence says. "And it negatively affects their school performance."
Lawrence explains that the costs of building a new school versus the cost of renovating an older school are never fully explained. A new building might be less expensive, but the costs don't include the hidden cost of carting the older school, to be replaced with the new building, to the landfill. And there is a real economic impact when schools close, as downtown merchants see their business dwindling because customers stop shopping there, Lawrence says.
When Rural Means Isolated
In Lake County Schools in northwest Montana, the three smallest districts are scattered amid farm country so using the school buildings for community use is not so popular. Joyce Decker Wegner, superintendent of Lake County Schools, oversees eight districts, three of which have fewer than 25 students and no principal on site. The three small districts include 35 Valley View School District in Polson with 25 students in K-6 and two teachers; 73 Salmon Prairie in Swan Lake with seven students in K-8 and one teacher; and 33 Upper West Shore-Dayton, in Dayton, which has eight students in K-6 and one teacher.
The schools held their own while up to 200 rural schools that once polka-dotted the landscape over the past few decades were shut down. As roads improved and the number of farms decreased as they grew bigger, there were fewer children and schools closed, Wegner says.
But Salmon Prairie and Dayton districts are on the endangered list to close and be consolidated into bigger schools in the area. Dayton, which is 30 miles north of Polson, is already a consolidation of three former country schools. Wegner's office is in Polson, which is 60 miles north of Missoula.
If enrollment in any Montana school district is under 10 students for three consecutive years, taxpayers must pay half of the state's payment of the general fund, or 22 percent, for that district. For some families in Cook County, it's only about a $7 increase, Wegner says. "They can do that [keep the schools open] indefinitely as long as the board votes to do that," Wegner says.
West Shore-Dayton is in its second consecutive year of having under 10 students and Salmon Prairie is in its first year with less than 10 students.
"I'm very supportive of them when they're providing a good education to the students," Wegner says. "The last few years for these tiny schools, the crucial thing is the quality of the teachers. If you don't have a good teacher, you'll have a terrible school."
"I'm supportive of the schools with conditions they are continuing good professional development and the school board backs that and if they try to keep good teachers on staff then I'm supportive of keeping the school open. If the numbers drop down lower than 5, I'd say, 'No.' "
But it also depends on the mix of the kids, the grades, and if the students can all work and meld together, Wegner says, or if children of committed, active families are trying to finish off school, then she would support keeping it open.
And this year, Valley View and Dayton districts have new teachers.
The three former teachers who left were lured by higher salaries and health benefits in nearby towns in the same county. One teacher's salary could not be matched this year because federal monies that helped pay for his salary were lost due to a shift of federal guidelines on poverty this year, she says.
"You need to find people that not only love to teach but are very independent," Wegner says. "Sometimes they have to be the janitor" or wire computers and repair plumbing pipes, she says.
Salaries are also quite low in this rural county, where mountains loom high. Teachers make between $24,000 and $38,000 while principals make up to $50,000.
But smaller is still king.
"What is happening is that there are a lot of people who don't like sending their kids to the big schools with 125 kids in a grade in Polson and Ronan school districts (in nearby towns), or ... in the middle schools where there are more discipline problems," Wegner says. "What is happening in Valley View School District is that parents are choosing the small rural school scene."
Focus on the Haves
As a rural school, administrators must think of the assets.
In North Haven, a tiny island off the coast of Maine, a retired New York director and set designer set up his new life. His background was a perfect fit for the theater arts program at North Haven Community School with roughly 70 students, Lawrence points out. The director-turned-arts-teacher, John Wulp, was instrumental in replacing the defunct general store with a new $3 million community center, home to the North Haven Arts & Enrichment program including a theater.
"Small schools can be more agile and can respond faster and have more imagination than great big institutions can," Lawrence says. "It requires some creative thinking.
"There are definitely more people recognizing the benefits of small schools," Lawrence says. "In many ways you can be more responsive to the people in your environment if you know them all. If they get to be too many people then you're forced to rely on formalized structure which takes precedence over people and it's often not the right response."
Leaders must think, "What do we have here that is valuable as a base to strengthen not only our school but our whole economic base?" Lawrence adds. "More strategically, ... it's not just about saving the school, but saving the whole community and making the place as functional as a community."
Yaunches adds, "When you close a small rural school you're kind of closing a community. It's hard to believe but it's true."
Angela Pascopella is features editor.