Children are the real losers in rural school closings

Published 1:07 pm Tuesday, May 7, 2024

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There is a lot of heartache in the Little Milligan School community after the Carter County School Board voted recently to close the small, rural school, which has less than 75 students. Parents were given little opportunity to share about the grievous loss. 

Little Milligan is probably the last of the small rural schools in Carter County, but, nevertheless, it has left an imprint on many families and students.

Things are going to change for the Little Milligan students, when they transfer to Hampton Elementary or choose to go to neighboring Johnson County schools. As school districts close rural schools and move students to a larger school, students are subjected to long bus rides and are separated from their families, friends, and they lose their identity.

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Proponents of closing schools often claim that the step will save tax dollars, boost academic performance and give advantaged students more opportunities. These rationales have inspired many national, state and local policies that have led to closure.

Yet, it is only natural that communities typically oppose school closures.

Closing a school can disrupt students’ relationships with peers and teachers and cause confusion and uncertainty. Although schools often are closed to save money, there are few studies on whether that happens.

If you grew up in a small community, you know how integrated a school and its community can be. Schools are a gathering place for the community. 

However, population declines and a shrinking student body made it impossible to keep the school doors open. 

But everyone, especially those in the Little Milligan Community, understood that consolidation was inevitable. Underneath that acceptance were fears that with the school’s closure, there wouldn’t be much left to keep the community alive. One thing is clear from academic research on rural schools: closings and consolidations can drastically change the flavor of civic life in a rural community. 

Rural communities “nurture participation in civic and social affairs” and “anchor people to place” while schools and other institutions help. School consolidation is likely to remain a threat to many rural communities in the coming decades.

Little Milligan School was not just an educational institution, but it served as the hub of the Little Milligan Community and surrounding area. The level of engagement by community members in the educational endeavors of the school contributed, in wide-ranging ways, to the success of the overall educational experience. The school was important to the life of the citizens around the school in addition to families with children. Even the teachers, some of whom lived close to the school and others who drove a distance to and from their homes, were committed to the work of the school. The school was a force that brought people together for a common purpose. There was an expectation for everyone to be involved in keeping the school an outstanding academic institution as a healthy social environment. Students were proud of their school, and alumni came back to the school to participate in school activities and to reminisce about the education they had received.

Interestingly, small schools in some places (usually urban), are often praised by policy makers as essential elements in improving the education of impoverished students. Unfortunately, small schools in rural places are seen as an expensive luxury.

It’s sad that things have to change, that small schools are having a lesser and insignificant place in America. Small communities such as Little Milligan still remain the foundation of modern America.