Rural Illinois Perspectives: The role of rural schools

Many rural school districts in Illinois are struggling with how to maintain quality education in the face of community decline that depletes available resources. One strategy is to use the school as a lever for building the community while enhancing student performance. This approach suggests that schools can take an active role in assuring their own and the community’s survival.

A recent report from the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) at Western Illinois University lists four community engagement models a school can adopt. The report, “In Search of Best Practices: A Research Agenda for Rural Education in Illinois,” by Timothy Collins, IIRA assistant director, notes the models can be used separately or in combination. They are as follows:

Model 1: Using the school as a community center makes the school into a community-wide resource. Schools can provide public space for meetings, exercise, and other activities; promote lifelong learning by establishing a learning resource center and offering adult education (GED classes, computer classes, etc.); lead the networking, coordination, and delivery of social services, such as daycare and family health services; and provide space for businesses to train employees or help businesses with training or problem-solving. Kitchen facilities can be shared with community food services, and school buses can transport the elderly.

Model 2: Community- or place-based curriculum can bridge the classroom and community development, while meeting state standards and encouraging civic engagement among students and adults. Developing a place-based curriculum involves listing community assets that can be used in the classroom as a springboard to let students become involved in community activities and problem solving. A place-based curriculum also can help the community build a “culture of education,” so both students and adults become lifelong learners, with the school at the center of those activities.

Model 3: Schools can help develop students’ entrepreneurial skills. Student-run small businesses can create new jobs, especially if they find the right market niche. It is essential to create new networks and partnerships to support the strategy. Rural schools must provide sound basic education, train students to be innovative, teach multiple skills, and enable students to work as teams of problem solvers. School entrepreneurial education programs are based on the premise that students who learn to earn their keep in the community are less likely to leave when they grow up.

Model 4: New technology offers schools several opportunities to engage with their communities. The World Wide Web can encourage entrepreneurship, community networking, and community development. Understanding the Web could help rural youth become technological leaders in their communities. They could teach each other, their teachers, and other adults how to use computers and the Web.

Obtain a copy of the report by contacting the IIRA at the phone number below, or from

For more information about the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, visit, or contact Timothy Collins, 800-526-9943 or

From the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2005, issue

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