Healthy Rural Schools, Healthy Rural Communities: 2009 REWG Brings Rural Education Activists Together

Last Updated: May 27, 2009

This article appeared in the May 2009 Rural Policy Matters.

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Count on good things happening when rural people concerned about their communities, children, and schools get together.
That’s exactly what happens at the national Rural Education Working Group meeting, where rural people from around the country share their work with each other. 
“I love to help kids… it gives you a great feeling to know there are other people concerned like I am. This is a fantastic event. You can use a lot of this to take home to your communities,” said, Clara Henderson of Warren County, North Carolina.
REWG participants share their experiences working to strengthen their communities and schools.
REWG participants share their experiences working to strengthen their communities and schools.
This year’s gathering, themed “Healthy Rural Schools, Healthy Rural Communities,” was hosted by the North Carolina Rural Education Working Group. It was held at the Kanuga Conference Center near Hendersonville, North Carolina on April 19 – 21. More than 100 participants representing 17 states came from as far away as Idaho and Maine, as near as South Carolina and Virginia, and from all over North Carolina.
“Many thanks for reminding me of the diversity of rural and its common roots,” wrote one participant. And another, who captured the most common comment on the gathering, said “meeting and talking with others who are passionate about rural education and communities” proved its most valuable aspect. 
Opportunities for making connections among participants are built into every aspect of the Rural Education Working Group (REWG), which offers a tailored mix of rural-specific workshops, local cultural experiences, and informal socializing.

Connections, Targeted Workshops, Cultural Experiences, and Fun

Community activists led many of REWG’s thirteen workshops, all of which are designed to provide address common issues affecting rural schools and communities. In addition to information, participants also get ideas and tools to use in their work and have opportunities to share their experiences and discuss the topic.
Arvella Scott of North Carolina said of the workshops, “People really get into the sessions. And there are things I can take back to my community.”  

REWG Workshops and Materials

Members of Arkansas Advocates for Community and Rural Education (ACRE) are addressing one of the most common challenges facing rural communities: the lost of economic opportunities and population. They shared what they are learning in the workshop, “Lessons Learned – What to Do and Not Do in Revitalizing Communities.”
Students from Louisiana are working to reduce poverty in their communities, a critical component of community development. In their session, “Mobilizing Youth in Revitalizing Communities,” they described how student-staffed tax centers are helping local residents claim income tax credits and deductions they had not previously known about. This year alone they helped local residents claim almost a quarter of a million dollars in income tax refunds, including over $100,000 in Earned Income Tax Credits.
See the curriculum developed as part of this project.
Young people were also at the center of the workshop, “Anatomy of Youth-Adult Partnership for Change.” Teams of young people and adults described how they have worked together to create new opportunities. Participants heard from students involved in Youth Build in North Carolina, a renewable energy project in Vermont, sustainable community efforts in Maine, and the poverty reduction work in Louisiana.
Bring money to communities;
Build houses;
Improve energy use;
Make their communities stronger.
“I didn’t want to know this… but I needed to,” observed one participant about the workshop, “ABCs of Discipline,” in which parents and community activists described how they are responding to problems in their schools associated with harsh discipline that is administered inequitably and with little regard for the long-term consequences for students. Many participants noted the relation between unfair, ineffective, and inappropriate discipline and the push-out/drop-out and juvenile justice epidemics.  
The workshop, “Yes We Can – Move from Talk to Action,” helped participants think about how to take action to ensure success for all children. “This experience gave me a chance to do some self-evaluation. Thanks,” said one participant.
Small group conversations provide participants with opportunities for deep thinking as part of the “Yes We Can” workshop.
Small group conversations provide participants with opportunities for deep thinking as part of the “Yes We Can” workshop.
The workshops “Can You Hear Me Now?” and “Create Positive Change by Telling Positive Stories,” engaged participants in both sides of the communications exchange so they can become better listeners and better communicators of their message – among community residents, between school and community, and to policymakers and the media.
In “How to be Effective Working with Legislators” rural activists from Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, and West Virginia shared what they have learned in their efforts to shape policy at the statehouse level. “The discussion was so engaging and the information was extremely useful,” noted one participant, “I wanted to hear more.”
The workshops “Taking Schools Away: The School Consolidation Crusade” and “Rural School Finance Update: Tying a Knot and Hanging On” addressed two perennial public policy challenges for rural schools. Both workshops provided overviews of the issues, strategies for protecting smaller schools and districts, and panelist discussions with community activists and rural administrators who are working to keep their schools in place and secure the resources they need.
For more information about the workshop "Rural School Finance Update,"
REWG participants got an ahead-of-publication look at Rural Trust’s major biennial analysis of rural education data in “Why Rural Matters 2009: A Sneak Peek.” Why Rural Matters 2009 will be released this fall. The workshop provided “a handle on the big picture through research and data analysis,” one participant noted, one with “tremendous leverage potential for public policy,” said another.
In Alabama a long-defunct nuclear plant located next to a rural elementary school is scheduled to go on line and timber monocultures impact the environment, the economy, and revenues in rural counties. In eastern North Carolina, industrial hog farms are proliferating in rural communities and near rural schools threatening air quality and children’s health. And, in West Virginia, billions of gallons of toxic coal sludge are dammed above a rural elementary school. These examples are just a small piece of the harm being done to rural communities and their residents as a result of public policy that fails to protect the environment in rural places. In “How Public Policy Abets the Destruction of Rural Environments, Communities sand Schools and How Communities are Fighting Back,” community activists put mountaintop removal coal mining, industrial animal farming, and timber and nuclear policies into a rural perspective to describe how quality of life and even the freedom to live in many rural places is compromised. 
Finally, “Raising Money from Private Foundations: How to Find It, How to Get It, How to Keep Getting It” provided participants with step-by-step guidelines for thinking and working through the grant-writing and fund-raising process. “This session was a great way to present a [whole] process,” said one participant.  
Get the presentation materials for this REWG workshop.

Cultural Experiences

Story teller Barbara Armstrong White performs on opening night of REWG. 
Becky Anderson of Handmade in America delivers a keynote address explaining her organization’s community-based approach to rural economic development.  
Bo Taylor leads an education program that included singing and dancing in a discussion of Cherokee history and culture.
Getting a taste of local cultures is an important part of REWG gatherings. This year, story teller Barbara Armstrong White performed North Carolina-based stories on opening night. She continued sharing humor and wisdom through storytelling in several other performances during REWG. White is also an entrepreneurial consultant. 
Becky Anderson, founder of Handmade in America presented a keynote address that explained how the organization has been a major driver of community-based economic development in the mountains of rural western North Carolina. The organization supports small communities as well as individual artists and local micro-businesses to build markets for their products in ways that foster collaboration and preserve values and places that local communities want to protect.
James “Bo” Taylor led an evening program that included a discussion of Cherokee history, culture, and stereotypes. He performed traditional songs and involved the entire group in a Cherokee dance, spicing it all with humor that got participants laughing as well as thinking. Taylor is a member of the Cherokee Long Hair clan and serves as archivist at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

National Rural Education Policy Statements

Beginning with the 2008 REWG, rural activists from around the country have been developing a series of policy statements expressing rural perspectives on five key issues: community revitalization, school finance, student success, environment, and curriculum and instruction. A committee on each topic worked together to draft the statements. This year, REWG participants reviewed the statements. You can read and comment on the statements at The commenting process will remain open until the committee finalizes the statements, which will then be circulated for endorsement and to raise awareness of rural concerns.

Rounding It All Out

Rounding out the 2009 REWG were social and crafts activities planned by the North Carolina REWG, a beautiful setting in the mountains, and a closing address by Rural Trust President Rachel Tompkins.
Harold Gott, a local school board member from rural Idaho who returned to REWG for the second time this year, said he had stayed in communication all year with several people he met last year. “REWG is very useful. It’s good to know you’re not the only one facing the same issues. Hearing other people’s stories and the sense of camaraderie you get at REWG is invaluable.” He says he’s a better school board member for his REWG experiences and sums it up: “I see a broader and wider horizon now.”

Read more from the May 2009 Rural Policy Matters.