Getting kids to stay

The call of the big city is strong for many rural students. But one town is fighting back by involving its teens in the community.

T troubles virginia krajewski that for most of her high school students, getting ahead means getting out of town.

The history teacher's concern is shared by other educators in Big Springs, Neb., who have watched as nearby hamlets have disappeared in recent years. But rather than just sit by, Ms. Krajewski and her colleagues have taken matters into their own hands. They've developed coursework aimed at keeping high schoolers interested in the town. Students attend chamber of commerce meetings, wash fire trucks, get to know senior citizens, and refurbish historic sites.

"A lot of times, our kids get great educations in the community and then they can't wait to get out," says Krajewski. "I want them to see what they have before they go."

The push to acquaint students with their surroundings comes at a time when farming opportunities in the US are drying up and what's being taught in schools extols urban rather than rural living.

Coursework ignores rural culture

Skills emphasized in most American high schools tend to prepare students for office jobs, not outdoor ones, say advocates for rural schools. Children are being fitted for participation in a global economy, but not necessarily a local one -at least not one that looks anything like what might be found in a community like Big Springs (pop. 495).

"It's a curriculum biased in favor of another cultural group," says Jerry Hoffman, director of The School at the Center Project at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. "Rural kids are being educated into a system that makes them lose confidence in their own culture and way of life."

Images of success presented in textbooks don't generally encompass the notion of contentment in a small town. Basically, many feel, rural kids are being educated only to leave.

"With all the hoo-ha about multiculturalism, we forget that rural is a culture," says Betty Beach, professor of education at the University of Maine in Farmington. What's needed in rural classrooms, she says, are learning materials "that are true to the roots of the community."

The move toward "volunteerism for academic credit" at South Platte High in Big Springs is in part about turning kids into well-rounded and thoughtful citizens. "It helps kids learn, gives them confidence and a sense of accomplishment," says Bryan Kotschwar, a geography and physical education teacher who helped Krajewski spearhead the drive towards volunteerism. But here there's a deeper dimension to community work.

"It helps to build [the students'] pride in the community," says science teacher Tim Cooper. "They take ownership."

Urgency to the plan

Agricultural towns across the United States are facing challenges similar to those in Big Springs. Farms are consolidating and rural populations are shrinking. In areas like the western panhandle of Nebraska the crisis seems particularly acute.

Andy Christensen, the school's vocational agriculture teacher, estimates that of the 55,000 farm families in the state today, 20,000 will quit farming in the next two years. For every three or four farm families that leave an area, he says one local business is lost as well.

That's why South Platte High teachers feel a sense of urgency about getting kids out into the community. To pass Krajewski's government class, for instance, students must get to know a senior citizen they're not related to and write about that person; attend and report on a civic meeting; and do any local volunteer work they choose.

The point, says Krajewski, is to counter the notion that there is no local economy and few people worth getting to know.

Kids responsive, but jobs scarce

Justin Pedersen and Bobbi Farnsworth, seniors at South Platte, say they've both enjoyed the forays they've made into the community. "It's fun knowing I'm involved, helping to make the community better," says Bobbi. And both agree that their view of senior citizens changed significantly as a result of the adopt-a-senior project. "I used to think they were just lazy and didn't know what they were talking about," says Justin. "I found out they do have lives," marvels Bobbi.

But neither teen admits to being more likely to stay in town because of the experience. "There are no jobs," Justin says. It's just too small, adds Bobbi.

Junior Ryan Johnson says he loves living in a small town like Brule (pop. 411), which is also served by South Platte High. "Progress happens, but the small-town heritage is priceless," he says. He's concerned about the area's limited employment opportunities, though. The way he sees it right now, his future -and that of the area -is "kind of up in the air."

One local mother also confesses some skepticism. "I don't mean to be pessimistic," she says, "but the real problem is jobs." On one level, she agrees, the locally oriented curriculum is working. "I think it does make the kids more appreciative of the town," she says. "But if there aren't jobs, they still won't come back."

Still, Krajewski isn't discouraged. The reports the kids write, she says, "are heartfelt." What she reads reassures her that "they're opening their eyes." It may not blossom until later, but she insists that a seed is being planted in favor of small-town life.

"Kids think that to have a successful career they have to be in New York City or in Denver," she says. "They have to begin to view their little town differently."

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