Engaged Institutions: Impacting Vulnerable Youth Through Place-Based Learning

Last Updated: July 01, 2003

Engaged Institutions

PDF (523 KB)
By Jose Colchado, Vicki Hobbs, Michelle Hynes, Jereann King, Martin Newell, Sylvia Parker and Sandra Wilson

Institutional engagement in rural schools and communities is a challenging but necessary enterprise. Often isolated from the services and amenities of urban life, many rural communities find their well-being, and even their survival, inextricably linked to that of their schools. In many instances, the schools, with their own set of challenges, are the community's greatest internal resource. Together, rural schools and communities are the greatest hope for improving and sustaining rural places.

Yet the challenge of mere survival too often distracts them from capitalizing on their major assets — small size and rural setting. Although the impetus for change should be internal, genuine partnerships with higher education institutions can help rural schools and communities maximize their positive aspects, overcome their many challenges, and improve the life chances of their young people. The challenge, as our experience and research attest, is to fashion the conditions and mechanisms that would allow for greater institutional involvement in ways that directly impact the lives of local people.

The Rural Trust is the premier national nonprofit organization addressing the crucial relationship between good schools and thriving rural communities. By deliberately choosing to work in rural places that are distressed by historic patterns of poverty and racism or stressed by population decline, demographic changes and fundamental economic shifts, the Rural Trust has also dedicated itself to impacting the lives of rural America's most vulnerable youth.

Over the past seven years, the organization has built a network of schools and communities throughout the country, all engaged to some extent in learning that is rooted in what is local — the unique history, environment, culture, and economy of a particular place. The community provides the context for learning, student work focuses on community needs and interests, and community members serve as resources and partners in every aspect of teaching and learning. We call this place-based learning. We have discovered that this local focus has the power to engage students academically, pairing real-world relevance with intellectual rigor, while promoting genuine citizenship and preparing people to respect and live well in any community they choose.

With funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Rural Trust sponsored six different researchers to develop case studies examining the connections between higher education institutions and vulnerable youth in communities that have chosen place-based education as a framework for student learning and community growth.