Category Archives: School-community relations

Telling it like it is

Listening one night this week to Judy Woodruff’s follow up conversation with a group of Virginia voters about how they felt about President Trump a year into his presidency, I was struck again by the one comment his supporters invariably say: “He tells it like it is.”

“Telling it like it is” really means, “Somebody important else feels the way I do.”

I’ve been trying to think whether I’ve ever heard anyone make that comment about a teacher or a school administrator.

So far, I’ve not thought of one.







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Baby steps toward reducing rural brain drain

The head of the town’s chamber of commerce facetiously says the local high school students walk off the stage with their diplomas onto a Greyhound bus, never to be seen again.Collage of 1-way signs surprinted with Suppose we could reverse rural brain drain with local information

The situation is not quite that dire, but the Bainbridge, NY, community is certainly not retaining or reclaiming enough of its young people to make even the most optimistic folks feel confident about the town’s future.

The brain drain has been on the minds of some local businesswomen who want to see the town retain jobs and create new ones.

As I’ve talked to owners and employees of businesses, when they learned I’m a writer, nearly every person has asked if I could write something they needed.

The needs they identified included radio ads, an employee manual, and web page copy — which are only a small fraction of the materials businesses really need to be competitive in a digitally connected world.

Filling local businesses’ needs for written content could become a business for some local graduate.

I suspect there are other business opportunities waiting to be discovered here as well.

Perhaps, like the town in this 2-minute video, we’ve assumed that students want to leave and not come back, when they would be open to coming back after college if they only knew what opportunities exist to create a business here.













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Maker movement makes rural life make sense

mountain forest with fog cover obscuring top half of photo
Rural America is a place where place-based learning and the maker movement can meet for economic development  when rural teachers take the lead.

A blog post by earlier this week by Leah Shaffer at MindShift begins by contrasting maker programs in cities with rural ones:

The maker movement has expanded greatly in recent years and much of the attention has focused on cities with high population density and large well-funded school districts. In rural districts, teachers are also developing maker projects to help students gain the benefits that come from hands-on experiences, while better understanding the needs of their communities.

Maker projects in Montana and Iowa

Shaffer reports on work by a students in a Montana community who built and programmed air sensors to monitor pollution from forest fires and wood smoke cause year-round air pollution, and one in which Iowa high school students analyze agricultural data they gather by flying drones over farm fields.

photo collage of drones in air surprinted "Drones gather data from farm fields, boost students' skills"

Shaffer’s sources note the need for teachers to anticipate skills students are likely to need a decade or more in the future and design projects that help them develop those skills.

Her sources also point out that schools can’t just equip a maker space and assume students will know what to do: Initial experiences must be structured.

Read the entire blog post.

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Great schools v not-so-good schools

I’ve had a week bordering on the frenetic.

Perhaps you have, too.

Take a minute to breathe deeply while you consider two sentences from Sir Kenneth Robinson.


Quote: Schools that don't get their role in the community can drain the life force out of the community.

On the other hand:


Quote: Great Schools enrich the entire neighborhood, the entire ecosystem.

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Rural triangle: School, community, economy

Curved arrows labeled Education, Economy, and Community chase one another in front of a green triangle.In November, 2015 I began posting a list of resources for folks who want to improve the relationship between rural schools and their communities for their mutual benefit.

It’s time to revisit the topic.

It’s still true that, as I wrote in 2015:

In rural communities, schools cannot be considered separate from economic development and community development. The vitality and policies of any one of the three impacts the other two.

And the 2015 description of rural brain drain still is largely accurate.

But rural America’s problems are getting more attention these days, most notably from rural Americans themselves who are stepping up try to reverse the decline of the rural American economy and prevent the loss of their communities and community schools.

I’ve shortened descriptions of resources I posted in 2015 and added dates for the resources so readers can quickly get a feel for the changes.

What’s happening in rural America?

(2009) The brightest students are leaving rural communities; job options for those who remain are diminishing.

(2012) The rural student population is getting larger, more diverse, and poorer.

(2013) Net migration isn’t offsetting the effects of brain drain.

Who is to blame for rural brain drain?

(2009) Schools and their communities each contribute to rural brain drain, setting the course for both to die. “Teachers, parents, and other influential adults cherry-pick the young people destined to leave and ignore the ones most likely to stay or return.”

(2017) Rural schools are failing their communities. A college degree in rural America is now synonymous with leaving and having no way to sustainably come back. Rural schools must work with their communities, rather than seeing themselves as separate from the cycle of economic decline.

How could rural schools aid in community development?

(2011) Schools could address community problems around medical care, food access, etc. by acting as self-sustaining revenue facilities.

How could rural schools aid in economic development?

(2011) A class of high school students in the poorest county in North Carolina designed and built a much-needed farmer’s market pavilion for the area.

(2012) Add skill applications to high school courses.

(2012) Greenville, NY, High School created what was, in effect, a small business incubator within its facility, offering a business rent in exchange for hands-on work experience for its high school students.

(2012) Encourage entrepreneurship by showing students online training resources they can access, and (2014) teach students to look for problems that require solutions.

(2013) Place-based, scholarly research by rural students can have direct, positive impact on local economic development.

(2013) Students in Cody NE, population 154, built a a 3,300-sq. ft. straw-bale building to use as grocery store and run it themselves. Inside, lettering on the wall above the produce cooler reads “It’s more than a store. It’s our future.”

(2014)  Capture the imagination of students who don’t see college as a path for themselves by school programs that target local economic problems.

(2015) Pell Grant experiment needs needs rural  scrutiny to make sure its rules won’t keep some rural students out of courses that fit their needs and interests.

(2017) Offer students a combination of coursework, internships, and job shadowing experiences to enable them to make informed choices about higher education, work, and place of residence. Preparing students for a continuously changing mainstream economy can give them the opportunity to return home as entrepreneurs or participants in the online space.

(2017) Schools can support project-based learning on authentic local problems that challenge students. For example, in Ness City, KS, an industrial arts class elected to design and build a tiny house. Other classes helped with interior design and marketing, and a special education class is documenting the project in a book. The classes plan to market the home across the country.

(2017) A SCORE chapter in Massachusetts collaborated with PTOs to deliver a six week, after-school program to train students in grades 4 through 8 to run their own businesses. The 72 participants in the initial program launched 52 new businesses, some of which were partnerships complete with partnership agreements.

How can rural schools and communities collaborate?

(2017) Public charters may offer rural communities a way to retain local schools.

(2011) Help teens get ready for the world of work with good attitudes and good skills.

(2012) Let teens work alongside adults to contribute to their communities and to develop and apply real skills.

(2012) Require students to apply classroom knowledge to real world writing situations and offer hands-on learning of salable skills.

(2012) Schools can grow their future teachers who will also be their communities’ future leaders.

(2014) Offer teens after-school programs that do more than distract.

(2014) Integrate non-academic services to students, their families, and even the wider community into the academic program.

(2016) Communities and schools need to work collaboratively to generate educational opportunities and economic prosperity in places where the number of voters without a child in school is a majority. Downloadable PDF from Battelle for Kids.

(2016)  School personnel and community members need to change the mindset that every kid needs to go to college. Today’s career and technical education, or CTE, can lead to a decent-paying job, particularly in those fields where employers say they are trying to cope with a serious “skills gap.”

(2017) Rural schools and their communities need to work together to turn around neighborhoods and schools long before those schools—and all the significance and services they bring with them—disappear.

What about the “no college for me” kids?

(2013) Give Career and Technical Education (CTE) students the same degree of academic support given their college-bound counterparts so they can take advantage of educational opportunities they need for their careers.

(2012) Six ideas for businesses serving the business market that require no post-high school training.

(2015) The internet allows someone with determination to learn skills for a good-paying job without the expenses of a college degree.

(2016) For years, there’s been almost no assistance for CTE students seeking post-secondary training. Three recent developments suggest the tide may be turning: An experimental program to give  in financial aid to those in nontraditional programs (such as coding boot camps), a MOOC with a graded-paper option, and the introduction of a federal law to expand concurrent enrollment opportunities for CTE students.

Who is working on the three-pronged rural problem?

SaveYour.Town Two small-town Iowans offer webinars, toolkits, and online communities to help people learn, grow and take action to revitalize their communities.

The Rural School and Community Trust ( has many resources, including Tools to fight rural school consolidation.

The Center for Rural Affairs ( developed a series of articles on why rural schools need to be kept alive. The articles are available as a 6-page pdf document.

The Orton Family Foundation empowers people to shape the future of their communities by collective, collaborative activities focusing on their unique strengths.

Have I missed items that should be here? Give me a shout in the comments or @LindaAragoni on Twitter

Updated June 23, 2017; March 27, 2017.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

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When I looked him up online

A recent post by Eric Stoller about why “getting Twitter matters” to higher education’s student affairs folks was being shunted around Twitter yesterday morning.

The nub of Stoller’s argument is this:

Laptop computer screen bearing quote "Digital capabilities / literacies are important. They are connected to employability, revolution, activism, teaching, learning, communication, engagement, etc."

As it happens, I’ve been thinking about the importance of digital capabilities/literacies a bit lately.

My local school district recently hired a new superintendent, Timothy R. Ryan,  who got exactly two sentences on page three of the school district’s June newsletter.

When I read the news, I did what I always do when “introduced” to people I’m likely to meet in person: I looked Ryan up online.

A few weeks later, I was chatting with a stranger. Before long the conversation got around to the local school.

The woman told me about a big hassle she’d had with the administrator who didn’t want her kid to be an exchange student, and her futile attempts to get anyone to respond to her concerns.

She concluded by saying she hoped the new superintendent would turn things around.

“But I have my doubts,” she said, “because I looked him up online and—”

I completed the sentence for her: “And he doesn’t have a digital presence.”

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Questions from the community for candidates

In 2011 when Bainbridge-Guilford was looking for a new school superintendent,  I served on the committee of community representatives who interviewed the three finalists.

In preparation for the interviews, I developed and posted a list of questions I thought were reasonable for non-school people to ask candidates. They fell into three broad categories:

  • Community relations
  • Technology and lifelong learning
  • Instructional leadership

I think the list is still useful; however,  I’ve come to think that the questions about technology, lifelong learning, and instructional leadership might better be asked by some school constituent group rather than community representatives.

I’ve come to think the community representatives should be people without personal ties to the school—not relatives of staff or parents of current students, for example—whose interest in the schools is related to the lack of suitable candidates for their job opening or to their tax bill.

Such folks are harder to reach than those with personal school connections, but they are a large group and, if they only knew it, have a vested interest in having a good school system. Involving them in the superintendent interviews would be good PR for the school district.

And what district doesn’t need some good PR?



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CTE students: Lazy, stupid, irresponsible?

The local school district’s mailed its annual back-to-school publication to residents last week.

I took particular note of the information about student attendance at BOCES, our regional vocational education provider.

Attendance in BOCES’ Career and Technical Education programs, New Visions programs, Unique Placement programs and Career Academy are privileges that cost our school district substantial amount of funding. To attend these programs, students must annually complete an application and sign a contract for consideration to be approved for attendance. Students displaying poor attendance, poor behavior and/or poor academics thus violating their contract are subject to removal from these programs anytime.

I read that as:

Vocational kids are a drain on local resources.

Vocational kids are irresponsible.

Vocational kids are stupid.

Vocational kids should be punished for not being academically apt.

Parents shouldn’t expect their vocational program student to get any help from the home school.

If you were the parent of a kid who’d rather tinker with an engine than read Emily Dickinson, would you get the message that the local school didn’t want your kid?

Or am I over-reacting?


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Helping Teens Outgrow Adolescence

Efforts underway locally to begin a youth center have prodded me into thinking again about how teens become adults.

Cover of Escaping the Endless AdolescenceTurning its youth into adults is vital for this rural area, since the majority of students who go off to college never return. Unless the teens who stay here after high school become productive members of the community, the brain drain will kill it.

In Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before they Grow Old,  Joseph and Claudia Allen  discuss how parental and societal desire to shield children from responsibilities of adult life have backfired.  Instead of helping teens, we’ve turned them into wimps who can’t fill out a job application without asking Mom what to write. We’ve kept teens doing fun activities  instead of challenging them to tackle something tough but important.  Many of today’s teens don’t feel capable of doing any adult task alone: They suffer from what the Allens call “chronic success deprivation.”

The answer is not creating places where teens can gather to learn from other teens how to behave. That postpones or detours teens’ development into adulthood.

The answer is putting teens into situations where they work alongside adults to accomplish goals that matter to the community.

Principles for teaching adult roles

Escaping the Endless Adolescence provides five principles to guide parents and communities’ efforts to help adolescents morph into adults:

1. Include them.

Giving teens opportunities to participate in the adult world taking on adult responsibilities at home, school and in the community. Genuine volunteer opportunities are good. (Required “volunteer work” and school-sponsored volunteer days are bogus.)

2. Go with the flow.

Build on teens’ desire for autonomy. Given them tasks they are capable of doing that need to be done. Then let the teen figure out how to do it.

3. Connect, connect, connect. 

Adults need to keep offering a relationship even when teens act as if they don’t want to interact with other adults, including their  parents.

4. Ramp up the challenge.

Teens respond to real challenges that are adult-like, that leave them with a sense that what they do matters in the adult world, that they can function competently and succeed in the adult world.  Often that means turning over to teens something they can do but which well-meaning parents or teachers didn’t want to burden them with.

5. Give it to them straight.

Teens see through the “everybody is a winner” baloney. They need to experience some of the unpleasant aspects of adult life, such as getting negative feedback.

Adults often fear that helping teens grow up will take far too much time and energy.  In truth, teens are as skillful as toddlers at mimicing adult behavior. They just need good models.

Teens learn by observation

In the late 1980s, the New York State Education Department asked the distance learning program I directed to test distance learning with students identified as likely high school dropouts. At that time, it was widely believed that only the very best students were able to learn via technology.

Four schools agreed to participate. They selected students who had failed at least two eighth grade classes and were seen as unlikely to complete high school. Studentz were told they would be allowed to enter ninth grade that fall only if they completed the 20-day program. Completion meant only that they showed up for three hours those 20 days.

We pulled together a team of four teachers, put them in four different schools, each with a small group of students. Each teacher was responsible for presenting material in a certain subject to the entire group via the technology. In addition, the teachers had to do right along with their studentswhatever tasks the presenter assigned.

By the third morning, every student was saying, “please,” “thank-you” and “excuse me.”  Nobody told them to do that: It was what they heard adults do.

We also saw a big change in how students handled frustration. They observed how teachers responded to technology glitches or to another teacher’s difficulty using the technology. Those adults didn’t  resorting to name-calling or smash something.  They suggested options.

Those behavioral changes may seem trivial, but they signaled the students’ eagerness to prove they were up to adult challenges.

Not one of the students missed a class.  One pedaled a bike five miles to and from class when he didn’t have a ride.

They were on time.

They participated.

And all but one graduated high school within five years.

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Building narratives and community from school outward

The Power of Community-Centered EducationDespite the fact that I collect stories the way a sheep collects burrs, I’ve never found a way to teach storytelling to teens and adults in ways that were effective or useful.

My students want to become accountants, or morticians, or engineers, not writers or English teachers. The best writer I ever had wanted to be a forest ranger. Those students would need to write narratives, but I didn’t know how to give them opportunities to craft narratives that were important to them. I knew that I ought to teach narrative writing, but how to do it effectively eluded me.

Michael L. Umphrey’s book The Power of Community-Centered Education: Teaching as a Craft of Place suggests an approach that might work with students like mine.

Umphrey became director of the Montana Heritage Project when it was, in his words, “a gathering of bureaucrats around a heap of money.” The project identified or created opportunities for high school students to do genuine scholarly research in their home communities. Umphrey calls the in-depth exploration of topics done by students in the Montana Heritage Project learning expeditions.

Learning expeditions

Going on a learning expedition sounds much more exciting than doing a term paper, doesn’t it? But when you sign on to an expedition, you expect more than excitement. On an expedition everyone is expected to do their share and then some, to work together for the good of the expedition, to keep up with the group on a forced march to reach safety before a blizzard breaks.

Unlike internships, which put individual students into job sites where they may or may not be involved in the organizations’ real tasks, the Montana Heritage Project put classes to work studying curriculum subjects—biology, history, economics, for example—in the laboratory of their own communities. There is nothing wrong with having students in North America develop ways to market rain forest projects, but community-centered education projects do more than give students collaborative projects on popular topics.

Community-centered education projects provide students with a sense of identity. Students’ research is more than just study. It’s work that they share with others in their local community.

As they study about the local community and build connections to its people, their world expands from their family and their school to a the more diverse community reaching back in time. They produce tangible products of their research that present residents and and future researchers can build upon. Umphrey calls these outcomes gifts of scholarship.

School-community partnerships

At least in my rural area, most of what schools term partnering with the community refers to schools asking the public donate money, or buy ads, or attend spaghetti dinners. The schools’ contribution to the community seems limited to subsidizing the best students through dual enrollment programs so they can afford the college educations that will allow them to move to a state with more vibrant communities.  By contrast, community-centered education projects focus on helping students to learn while helping their own community to become more vibrant, to become the kind of place they want to live in and participate in.

Umphrey writes:

Students doing heritage projects have assisted libraries and museums in building their oral history collections and in improving their historical photograph archives; they have done field archaeology and data collection for state natural resource agencies; they have assisted local people in completing the research to nominate community buildings to the National Register of Historic Places; they have created audio tours for local museums; and they have compiled histories of local organizations. Such projects allow students to gain crucial skills at the same time they accomplish work that benefits the community.

These projects are real work, not make-work. They strengthen the communities in ways that fundamentally support the schools’ learning-teaching function.

I suspect that adopting a community-centered approach to education is not without its difficulties. The projects have to fit the school and the community. Finding community experts who willing and able to teach teenagers to do a good job at boring research tasks could be challenging. Meshing the community work and the demands of the educational bureaucracy could make organizing a trip to the International Space Station look simple.

Despite the risks and challenges, the kinds of community-centered education projects Umphrey describes seem to me to hold real potential for engaging students and encouraging communities.

Pick up a copy of the book and see what you think.

Related posts

[Updated links 2014-04-25]

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