Rural school-community relationship not black-and-white all over

Cover of Why Rural Schools Matter shows small school lit at night in dark surroundingsI’d been chewing over Why Rural Schools Matter for a few weeks when I saw a news release from Bates College where the book’s author, Mara Casey Tieken, currently teaches.

There’s nothing like providing a news peg to make an ex-journalist feel the need to start writing.

The release said Tieken had been awarded the 2016 Lyton Award from the New England Resource Center for Higher Education for her research on rural schools and their relationships with their communities.

Comparison portraits

Tieken studied the experiences of two Arkansas communities and their schools: Delight and Earle. Race played a significant role in each community through the years, but in rather different ways.

In Delight, the school is the center of the 311-person community; people have learned to put community ahead of racial considerations. Both blacks and whites united against consolidation, which they saw as the death-knell for their community.

In Earle, the community was divided along racial lines when desegregation became law. Whites fled. Blacks gained political power. But economic power has remained in the hands of the whites, who don’t have children in the schools.

Good reporting, well written

Tieken writes well. I don’t mean just that she writes well for an academic: Her writing is good by literary standards.

If anyone needs exemplars of good nonfiction, they’ll find plenty in Why Rural Schools Matter. Tieken uses all the tricks English teachers talk about—from vivid word pictures and engaging narrative to variable sentence lengths—and makes them disappear into seemingly effortless prose.

Tieken also reports well. She tells both sides of a story, withholds judgment until the facts are in, discloses her affiliations and biases.

What’s not said

The communities Tieken chose are unique and their situations complicated. Delight and Earle feel almost like two ends of a spectrum. That sense of divergence makes the issues stand out in stark terms, but it also makes the possibility of middle ground seem remote.

I can’t help thinking that if Tieken  had picked two rural school districts in South Dakota, for example, the book would have been very different, that there might have been a greater sense of optimism among the community members about their long-term survival. (Disclosure: I was born in rural New York and after college lived in rural communities in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia before coming back my rural NY roots.)

My sense is that by choosing schools with such distinctly different racial experiences, Tieken unwittingly shifted the focus from why rural schools matter to why race matters in rural schools.

Of the two questions, why rural schools matter is the more difficult to answer to the satisfaction of anyone outside rural schools.