Standing Up for Community and School

Last Updated: January 01, 1999

Standing Up for Community and School

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Rural People Tell Their Stories

By Bradwell Scott for the Rural Trust

Public policies should always be predisposed toward human possibility—the notion that we should live well, with open hearts and minds, and in community with each other. “Every community,” according to one passage in Rural Challenge literature, “is a richly detailed place able to provide a laboratory for learning...children are young citizens whose work in school should serve to improve their community, and education is the responsibility of the whole community, not only of professional educators.”

Here is a collection of stories about real people in real communities, from Alaska to Alabama, from California to Mississippi, from Texas to Minnesota. They’re stories that speak to people who feel that public policy concerning education is an uninviting subject. It may seem too controversial; or it may seem like a kind of sideshow or deflection from more immediate concerns. It may even seem dry, abstract. Even as we begin to read this collection, we may think public policy is a subject that others have a “thing” for—that it’s not much related to making a home, raising kids, and holding down a job. It’s not where we live. What are we talking about? Rules and regulations? OK, we’ve got to have them. So let the governor, the city council, the superintendent’s office, or the school board deal with it all. That’s what they are for!

We could turn a blind eye if all that public policies amounted to were “rules and regs.” But the truth is, they signify a lot more than that. The little booklet in your hands is saying, “Hear us out...we’re people just like you who found out that if we don’t take an interest in it, public policy won’t take much interest in us when we need it most. We found out just how close to home a bad public policy can hit. We’ve gotten to the other side of some sticky issues but aren’t claiming any great final triumphs. We are beginning to see how democracy itself feels ‘born again’—right under our noses—when people get together to make policy work for them.”

So these aren’t “success stories” in the typical sense. The successes documented here, in most cases more than equaled by the struggles behind and alongside them, are bringing something important to light about public policies: behind the rules and regulations there are assumptions about our human nature, beliefs about our limits and possibilities, and values concerning what is good and not so good, in what we do.

Take, for example, the case of the young girl in Minnesota who went to a non-traditional high school that measured kids’ progress on the basis of the skills and knowledge they could actually demonstrate within their own project goals. The girl was still able to get the highest score possible on the ACT, and while still in high school took college courses and got As. But when she went out for the women’s softball team at the university she applied for, the National Collegiate Athletic Association said no—she didn’t qualify because she didn’t take the courses it prescribed for high schoolers. NCAA assumed that anyone not fulfilling traditional course requirements didn’t have a “good education”; it believed that traditional courses were the only valid courses; it neither comprehended nor valued an innovative approach to high school education whose principles are among the most respected among educational experts throughout the country—and whose excellent results are apparent by any measure.

And the result of this policy blockade? Nine months of tedious, frustrating, and (it’s probably safe to say) agonizing struggle for this girl and her mother, before the NCAA would finally relent. Nine months of putting her life on hold. Nine months of wondering how it could be possible for an outstanding achiever to be held down by something so arbitrary, imposing. And, we find out, she’s only one among thousands like her, engaged in similar uphill struggles against NCAA’s authoritarian policies.

Now, as burdensome as a policy like this is to many, many young people and their families, public policies aren’t the be-all and end-all. But they do relate to everyday life more than one may suspect. So this booklet is an invitation. It’s saying, forthrightly, that all of us had better get involved. We need each other. It’s not just that public policies “matter”; it’s that they’re like icebergs: the tips you can see, reckon with, work around if necessary. What’s underneath them—the assumptions, beliefs and values you don’t always see—can be treacherous. At the very least, they can undermine or limit human possibilities. Or they can be ingenious and liberating.

The bad news of certain public policy “icebergs” that would work against a school-in-community/community-in-school approach to education is at the same time the good news of opportunity, ultimate freedom to choose, and possible victory. But let’s face it: no one is going to get “turned on” to public policy issues until they become conscious of what they’re doing to them—or for them. These policies are part  of the very atmosphere, more than first appears. Reading these stories, one realizes that significant public policies affecting education can be both disturbing and inspiring, but never boring. They engage as they impact. They urge concerned citizens to the front lines of thought and action.