School-Community Partnerships Benefit Both

Last Updated: April 01, 2006

"If you want to have good relations and increase support for the schools, connect student learning to the good of the community," says Robert Chappell, Superintendent of Schools in rural Rappahannock County, Virginia.

Increasingly, rural schools and communities are heeding such wisdom. This issue of Rural Policy Matters (RPM) explores school-community partnerships that are helping rural students and communities thrive. RPM print edition features three sites; RPM-Online features three more.

One of the striking features of these programs is their success in very different situations. Rappahannock County is a moderate income, majority white community that is feeling the press of second home seekers and urban sprawl in nearby counties. Wakefield, Nebraska is a low to moderate income community whose farm economy continues to experience rapid change; about half of its residents are white and about half are Latino. East Feliciana Parish, a former plantation area in southern Louisiana is majority African American; most incomes are low and economic opportunity is limited. Additional information about these sites is available at RPM-Online, where there are also features on partnerships in Grant City, Missouri; Ojai, California; and Elgin, Nebraska.

Rappahannock County, Virginia

"Make it clear to the community what it is they are supporting when they support the school," says Roger Mello, principal of Rappahannock County High School. There is not much confusion about such things in this north central Virginia county. Through the school's cross-disciplinary Farm-To-Table program and its Culinary Arts class, students regularly prepare meals, often from produce grown in the school garden, for the senior citizen center.

Residents who are unlucky enough to need emergency medical services during the day may be lucky enough to be rescued by a licensed EMT-who just happens to be a student at the high school. But that's not all . . .

"We don't have the money to bring in the kinds of programs that suburban schools provide, so we take students into the community," says Amy Silver, Coordinator of Grants and Partnership for Headwaters, the county's local public education foundation.

Students in the Geospatial Technologies class contract with local "clients." Among their projects are maps tracking stream erosion and riparian buffers and maps of the home sites of alumni of a local school, closed in 1967, that served African-American students during the era of school segregation.

The school integrates community-connected work across the curriculum. It also shares a very popular Fitness Center with the community. Student achievement is strong and the drop-out rate is just one percent.

Wakefield, Nebraska

This K-12 school district of 460 students in northeast Nebraska has seen major change in recent years. The farm crisis of the 1980s forced many local women to seek employment, creating a demand for child care. In the 1990s, newly immigrated Latino families began settling in the community and working at a local plant, also increasing the need for child care.

When it appeared in the late 1990s that the child care center might be forced to close, local residents formed a committee to explore what might be done. The result is the Wakefield Family Resource Center (WFRC), which provides high quality preschool programs for 78 children, including special needs students.

WFRC also offers adult education, English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, and GED classes. It has partnered with the Siouxland Health Center to provide a medical van in the community. Wakefield School Superintendent Mike Moody says WRFC provides a "front-line welcoming institution in a small community and helps build bridges between long-time Anglo and new Latino residents."

The school, whose student population is nearly 45% Latino, sponsors a buddy system between secondary and elementary students, provides ESL programs, and supports high school students who volunteer to work with younger children during school events and teacher conferences.

WFRC Director Ereline Stubbs observed, "It wasn't until we put our heads together that we were able to move." Enrollment in the school district is increasing, children are entering school better prepared, and social and cultural tensions in the community have eased considerably.

East Feliciana, Louisiana

With no hospital in this southern Louisiana parish, residents had to drive nearly an hour for most medical services. Many people waited until they became acutely ill. That situation began to change in 1999 when local resident and nurse practitioner Ginger Hunt approached then-Superintendent Daisy Slan and the school board about creating a school-based clinic.

The school system, although struggling financially, immediately saw the benefit and agreed to renovate space and cover the costs of maintenance and utilities. Hunt sought and received start-up grant support. In February 2000, the county's first full-service health clinic opened in Clinton Middle School.

The clinic is open to the entire community. It also provides medical care and gives annual and athletic physicals to all students whose parent signs the consent forms. Two more associated clinics have opened, one in the community and one at the Jackson (K-12) school complex. The clinic has a dentist and several social workers, provides mental health services, and is a federally qualified health center.

Jackie Lacy, Child Welfare and Attendance Supervisor for the parish school system, says the clinic has been a good thing for the school and students. Both Lacy and Hunt stress the need for collaboration and communication. "It's a lot of time and work," Hunt says, "but it's worth it. Everyone benefits."

Learn about more school-community partnerships.

Common Themes

As different from one another as these partnerships and communities are, they share common themes:

  • They began when someone saw a need in the community and recognized it as an opportunity for the school.
  • Partnerships need the commitment of someone in the school and someone in the community.
  • Collaboration, lots of communication, and flexibility are absolutely essential.
  • There is a commitment to fairness and to involving and serving the entire community.
  • Partners find complementary strengths and use them for common good.
  • The work is inspired, and also very practical. These partnerships cover liability issues, deliver what they promise, and avoid competing with local organizations.
  • Successful collaborators believe that the school belongs to the community.
  • Success breeds success: the community's confidence grows, and the school is seen as a great investment by local residents and by outside funders.

Related Categories: Rural Policy Matters

Related Tags: School-Community Partnerships